With the November elections quickly approaching, many feel the urge to get involved in the election process. Head Start grant recipients and their employees may feel particularly motivated because federal, state, and local election results will likely influence the program’s operations for the immediate future and years to come. Like many other aspects of the Head Start program, there are a number of rules governing the political activities of Head Start programs and their employees based on the program’s tax exempt status, state law requirements, and other funding streams. Because of the authorizing statute, the political activity of all Head Start programs is governed by certain provisions of Hatch Political Activity Act (the “Hatch Act”).
What is the Hatch Act and who is covered?
According to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the federal agency charged with enforcing the Hatch Act, the purpose of the Act is to “ensure that federal programs are administered in a nonpartisan fashion, to protect federal employees from political coercion in the workplace…”
In general, the Hatch Act limits the political activities of federal government and District of Columbia government employees but it also covers certain state and local government employees. Grant recipients under the Head Start Act are deemed to be state and local agencies under the Hatch Act, even if the recipient is a private entity. As such, under 5 U.S.C. § 1502(a) these programs, their officers and employees may not:
- Use their “official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election or a nomination for office;”
- Directly or indirectly “coerce, attempt to coerce, command, or advise” covered employees ”to pay, lend, or contribute anything of value to a party, committee, organization, agency, or person for political purposes;” or
- Run for a partisan elective office if that employee’s salary is funded by Head Start funds.
Section 656 of the Head Start Act also prohibits Head Start programs and individual employees supported by Head Start funds from doing the following during work hours:
- Engaging in any political activity, whether partisan or nonpartisan, in an election for public or party office;
- Engaging in any political activity to provide voters (or perspective voters) with transportation to polls; or
- Spending Head Start funds on registration activities.
In sum, the Head Start Act seeks to not only protect Head Start employees from partisan coercion, but it also seeks to ensure that when public as well as private entities expend Head Start dollars, they refrain from using those funds in the political process. But what about individual employees?
Do Head Start employees give up their First Amendment Right to participate in the political process for the election the U.S. President and other partisan races?
Head Start employees covered by the Hatch Act don’t lose their First Amendment Rights. Limitations on political activities only cover the time in which the employee is working on behalf of the Head Start program. In other words, the limitations do not apply when the employee is “off the clock” and all employees are free to participate and support candidates on their own time and with their own resources.
In addition, individuals affiliated with the Head Start program may not use their positions as Head Start employees when exercising their rights to endorse or oppose a particular candidate, political party or other political activity, even when doing so during their free time. This is equally true for members of the governing body, and policy council.
With 24/7 access to the internet via smartphones and other devices, the use of social media has made these distinctions murky. For example, while employees are allowed to post links to their preferred candidates on their personal pages, they may not do so using Head Start equipment or during work hours. As private citizens, Head Start employees may privately “like” a candidate’s or party’s Facebook page, or “follow” a candidate on Twitter, but the Head Start organization itself cannot.
The Department of Justice has provided extensive guidance on political activities and the Hatch Act for federal employees. Although this guidance is directed to federal employees that are covered by more stringent restrictions, many Head Start programs might find it to be helpful.
What can Head Start programs do during this election season?
Despite the prohibitions, there are still options. For instance, Head Start programs may host a nonpartisan organization to help members of your community register to vote. While the statute says that you cannot use federal funding for voter registration, it specifically allows Head Start programs to make their facilities available for any nonpartisan organization for the purpose of registering voters. Additionally, the statutes do not prevent your organization from educating parents on when, how, or where to vote.
The new Head Start Program Performance Standards (HSPPS) do not provide additional guidance on how your program can comply with the requirements under the Hatch Act. That means it is up to each individual program to implement policies and procedures that provide specific guidance on how to comply. At a minimum it is important to make sure that all Head Start management, staff, governing body and policy council members receive training on what they can and cannot do during election season and throughout the year to stay in compliance by referring to information from the OSC and other helpful resources.