The Hatch Act of 1939, or "an act to prevent pernicious political activities," was developed to prevent employees of the United States federal government from participating in any partisan activities or in other activities that defied the constitutional system of government. The Hatch Act takes its name from the New Mexico senator Carl Hatch, who authored the act. Its main effect is to prevent federal employees from engaging in any form of political action. The act was largely aimed at preventing the bribery and coercion of government officials to support or influence government elections in any way.
Electoral reform was the primary purpose of the Hatch Act; before the act, there was a great deal of corruption in the electoral system of the United States. It was not uncommon for federal employees to run a merit system in which they rewarded individuals for voting in a certain way. The act covers such topics as bribery, coercion, restrictions on use of government funds, and participation in political campaigns. Most federal employees are actually not permitted to be formally associated with or to play any active role in political campaigns. Enforcement of the Hatch Act helped to bring about the end of the merit system in the United States.
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The Hatch Act also prevents federal employees from belonging to groups that engage in activities that go against the principles of the United States' constitutional form of government. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, this was interpreted to include various communist, socialist, and labor party groups as such groups were seen as distinctly anti-American. Most modern interpretations of the act do not include such restrictions; the elements relating to elections are the only generally enforced aspects of the Hatch Act. The statement of the act is, however, relatively general, and alternate interpretations are possible.
There are many actions that federal employees may not engage in and many groups they may not belong to. Generally speaking, a federal employee may not be a candidate in any partisan election for any public office. They are also not allowed to use their public positions to influence anyone's decision regarding public partisan elections. They may, however, register and vote and assist in voter participation drives. They are also allowed to participate in some partisan activities, such as volunteering to help in a political party, as long as they do so in a strictly personal manner that in no way involves their federal work.