When Sheriff Doug Cox ran for office, his candidacy was challenged on the basis that he was violating the federal Hatch Act.
That law, approved in 1939, is designed to keep partisan politics out of the governmental workplace. One of its three rules is that state and local employees whose jobs are connected to federal funding cannot run for political office.
But an inadvertent consequence of the law might be that it prevents qualified candidates from seeking office.
When Cox worked as chief deputy he regularly dealt with federal grants that paid for equipment and projects, such as driving under the influence and seat belt enforcement efforts, that the county would otherwise have had to pay for. After Cox announced he was running for sheriff, a complaint was filed with the Office of Special Counsel that he was in violation of the Hatch Act.
Cox was given three choices: resign as chief deputy, withdraw his candidacy or continue running and expect to be replaced as sheriff if he won. He resigned and took a lieutenant’s job, which didn’t involve handing any federal money.
In 2008, former Greenwood City Council member Keith Hardin decided not to run for re-election after being told his job with a state office prevented him from running under the Hatch Act.
This past year, Congress approved changes to the act. Under the new rules, employees who receive 100 percent of their salaries from federal funds are not allowed to run for partisan office. The revisions were approved by the U.S. Senate in November and by the U.S. House of Represenatives in December. The updates now go to President Barack Obama for his signature.
The other two provisions of the Hatch Act are unchanged. State and local employees working with federal funding still cannot use their jobs to influence a partisan campaign, nor can they require an employee to do anything for political purposes.
“We really felt like we were disqualifying able candidates from serving their local communities. So that is the prohibition that is on the verge of going away,” said Ann O’Hanlon, spokeswoman for the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.
O’Hanlon said the Office of Special Counsel began asking Congress to change the law more than a year ago so that candidates no longer could use the act to challenge opponents’ eligibility. The office also didn’t believe it was the federal government’s place to tell local communities who was eligible to run for positions such as sheriff, city council or school board, she said.
She said the local stories aren’t unique. Her office regularly receives complaints from across the country about potential conflicts of interest under the Hatch Act, which were not the kinds of conflicts the law was intended to prevent. In Pennsylvania, for example, a police officer who worked with a police dog that was partly paid for by federal funding wasn’t allowed to run for school board because of the law.
The change in the law approved by Congress makes sense. When only a small part of a public employee’s compensation comes from federal funds, that is hardly a reason to bar that person from serving in public office, especially when the position has little or nothing to do with their job.
We urge the president to sign this common-sense adjustment to the Hatch Act.