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Congress Relaxes Restrictions on Political Activity by Certain State and Local Government Employees

June 25, 2014

In May, the federal Office of Personnel Management issued its final rule implementing the Hatch Act Modernization Act of 2012. The Hatch Act is a federal law that regulates the political activities of many public employees at the local, state, and federal levels. The recent changes to the Act have eliminated longstanding restrictions on state and local government employees who wish to run for political office.

The Hatch Act Modernization Act’s primary change is its relaxation of federal restrictions on public employees who were previously barred from participating in partisan political elections if their positions were supported, even in small part, by federal funds. With the new changes, the Hatch Act now allows employees of local and state governments to run for partisan political office as long as their salary is not wholly funded by federal loans or grants. The result of this change is that most local and state employees may run for elective office in partisan elections without running afoul of the Hatch Act.

Of course, for public employees interested in running for office, Hatch Act-compliance is but one of many possible hurdles to clear. This is because most states (including Pennsylvania) and municipalities have laws and ethics rules governing the political activity of their employees, many of which impose stricter requirements on political participation than the Hatch Act. Before participating in a partisan election, employees should make sure that they are not prohibited from running for office by state or local law, as penalties for violations can be severe, and may include termination of employment.

For political activity other than running for political office, the Hatch Act Modernization amendments do not change the longstanding prohibitions on coercive conduct or misuse of official authority by public employees for partisan purposes. Under these rules, a state or local employee whose employment is funded in whole or in part by federal funds may not use their government position to interfere with any election or nomination for public office. Such employees also may not “directly or indirectly coerce, attempt to coerce, command or advise” any other state or local employee to support any political candidate, party, or organization.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is responsible for enforcing the Hatch Act, and the federal Merit Systems Protection Board adjudicates disciplinary actions against federal, state and local employees alleged to have violated the Act. When the Act’s amendments were introduced to the Senate, the Office of Special Counsel commended the change and said, in a statement, that the modernized Act “will allow us to prioritize enforcement in serious cases of political misconduct, while respecting the independence and integrity of state and local elections.”

Because many Hatch Act restrictions remain in place, and because related state and local laws contain employee political activity limitations, it is important for state and local employees to understand the extent to which their political activities are regulated, and how and when such activities could violate the law. For more information on how Willig, Williams & Davidson can help you understand and take advantage of this recent legal development, please contact one of our Labor Department attorneys at (215)-656-3600.

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