Federal employees are prohibited from interfering in elections.
Federal employees are prohibited from interfering in elections.

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid recently accused FBI Director James Comey of violating the Hatch Act -- a law with a long history.

    Comey had announced that the bureau was probing emails found on the computer of an aide to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee. Clinton's email practices -- particularly, her use of a private home-based server while serving as secretary of state -- had been the focus of a previous investigation. The director's decision to announce an update to the probe so close to the election angered some Democratic politicians. 
    “Your actions in recent months have demonstrated a disturbing double standard for the treatment of sensitive information, with what appears to be a clear intent to aid one political party over another,” Reid wrote in a letter Oct. 30 to the FBI director. “I am writing to inform you that my office has determined that these actions may violate the Hatch Act, which bars FBI officials from using their official authority to influence an election. Through your partisan actions, you may have broken the law.” 
    So what is the Hatch act? Here is an overview:

Namesake: The Hatch Act was named for its sponsor, the late Sen. Carl Hatch, D-New Mexico (1889-1963).  

The background: In the wake of the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), established in 1935, had become an important employer for many Americans. For six years (roughly, until the beginning of World War II) it employed nearly one-fifth of the country’s labor force, according to the New Mexico website. Following the 1938 elections, questions arose about the WPA’s political activities. Hatch was part of the committee that investigated charges that local politicians were using the administration’s staff and funds during the election.  

 Hatch takes action: The committee’s investigation confirmed that there had been improprieties. A Tennessee senator, for example, hadreceived substantial donations from federal civil service and relief employees, supposedly under 'intimidation' and 'coercion,'" according to the New Mexico History website. The legislation Hatch drafted, the Hatch Act of 1939, was aimed at preventing that from happening again.  

What the Hatch Act does: The actlimits certain political activities of federal employees, as well as some state, [Washington] D.C., and local government employees who work in connection with federally funded programs,” according to the Office of the Special Counsel. “​The law’s purposes are to ensure that federal programs are administered in a nonpartisan fashion, to protect federal employees from political coercion in the workplace, and to ensure that federal employees are advanced based on merit and not based on political affiliation.​​​​”​  

What if someone violates the Hatch Act? The Office of the Special Counsel investigates alleged violations. It is an administrative action:If OSC charges an employee with a violation of the Hatch Act, those charges are adjudicated before the Merit Systems Protection Board,” the office’s website says. “After investigating an alleged Hatch Act violation, OSC may seek disciplinary action against an employee before the Merit Systems Protection Board. When violations are not sufficiently egregious to warrant prosecution, OSC may issue a warning letter to the employee involved.”

Update: The act  was amended in 1993, according to the Congressional Research Service. It now “permits federal employees to engage in a wide range of voluntary, partisan political activities on their own, off-duty time, but still prohibits employees from being candidates ‘for election to a partisan political office.’ Such employees, it may be noted, may run for office in a ‘nonpartisan’ election (that is, an election in which none of the candidates represents a political party); may run as an ‘independent’ in partisan elections in certain specified, exempt localities in which a number of federal employees reside; and may generally be candidates for and hold positions in political parties and their affiliated organizations.”

      To know more: 


      Election 'monitors' a form of intimidation? 

      Voter fraud: Chances like lightning strike  

      Voting rights: past, present and future

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