Tweet about candidates on your own time if you work for the U.S. government

A Postal Service employee changes his Twitter profile to add a photo of the presidential candidate he supports, then tweets while at work. An employee of the Department of Agriculture sees a political fundraising request posted on Facebook and clicks “like.” In the U.S., these people are breaking a law, whether they know it or not.

Everybody has an opinion about politics and, in an open society, everybody is free to express those opinions and work to get their candidate elected. But for people who work in the U.S. government it gets a little more complicated.

The 1939 Hatch Act applies to the 4 million people who work for the executive branch of the U.S. government. It lays out what federal employees can and can’t do when it comes to working on behalf of a political party or a particular candidate.

Here are some of the things the Hatch Act says federal employees cannot do:

  • Use their official authority to interfere with an election.
  • Solicit or discourage the political activity of anyone with business before their agencies.
  • Solicit political contributions.
  • Run for office in partisan elections.
  • Engage in political activity while on duty, while displaying government identification, while at work or in a government vehicle.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency, enforces the Hatch Act and advises government employees on whether political activities they’re considering would be illegal. It issues more than 1,000 advisory opinions each year. In recent years, the office has updated its guidance to take into account behavior on social media.

The Hatch Act doesn’t prevent government workers from expressing their political opinions outside the workplace, voting or even helping to register voters.

What it does do is promote a politically neutral government workforce. It protects government workers by insulating them from political coercion. For instance, a civil servant cannot be fired, disciplined or discriminated against for refusing to work on a political campaign or to contribute to a political party or candidate.

One section of the act exempts high-ranking officials appointed by the president from the ban on political activities. This allows people like the president’s personal advisers and Cabinet secretaries to continue to participate in their party’s political activities.

If a government employee covered by the Hatch Act is found to have violated it, the penalties range from receiving a reprimand to losing the job and being debarred from government work for a period of up to five years.

Graphic reading "Elections 2016" (State Dept./J. Maruszewski)