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Curious about the Hatch Act? It was passed by Congress and signed by the president in 1939, and emerged from an effort to keep electioneering out of New Deal public works agencies.
Sen Carl Hatch (D-NM) proposed it at a time when his fellow NM senator was involved in a scandal that ultimately led to several dozen indictments, for abusing Works Progress Administration (WPA) jobs and funds for political purposes.
Shortly afterward a similar scandal emerged in Kentucky, where Alben Barkley’s organization was putting pressure on WPA workers to support him.
Although hearings suggested efforts to corrupt the WPA were few and ineffective (and scholarly studies have since found the same: relief spending didn’t correlate with support for the New Deal, overall economic performance did) it was still corrupt, so Congress moved to ban it.
Roosevelt worried the law’s ban on campaigning by executive officers might cover the president himself, and wanted assurances it did not.
Thomas Corcoran and Ben Cohen prepared a veto statement, saying the White House favored a stricter ban and a publicly funded system of elections.
Ultimately the president decided to sign the law and tried to own it, calling it “a step in the right direction.”
He also got Congress to extend it to cover state and local officials in federally funded positions.
Not only did the law bar federal officials from using their positions for various kinds of electioneering,
it also barred federal employees from membership in any party “which advocates the overthrow of our constitutional form of government in the United States."
The Supreme Court upheld the essential provisions of the Hatch Act in 1947, balancing the individual liberties of public employees against the public interest in disinterested civil service.
Would you like to read more about the origins of the Hatch Act, including its relation to the infamous Harry Hopkins remark about taxing, spending, and electing? There’s lots in Jason Scott Smith’s book, BUILDING NEW DEAL LIBERALISM
Here’s another fun fact about the Hatch Act: the same year it was passed, Roosevelt’s attorney general created the Civil Liberties Unit, soon renamed the Civil Rights Section.
One of the CRS’s first jobs was to write a memo summarizing all the bits of federal law that might be used in civil rights prosecutions. It included the Hatch Act—
whose introduction included a general proscription against intimidating or attempting to intimidate any voter in a federal election. The memo-writers observed that with some work,
that clause could be made to apply to primaries, which were the actual, decisive elections in the (effectively) one-party South. Which meant the Hatch Act could be one of several ways into a federal guarantee of black voting rights in the South.
And indeed, in 1940 the civil rights section did indeed bring a suit, which the Supreme Court decided in their favor, bringing primary elections under federal jurisdiction: US v. Classic, decided 1941.
That suit became the basis for Smith v. Allwright, which the NAACP LDF argued by saying that the decision in Classic must mean that it was illegal to bar people from voting in primaries on the basis of race.
The Court agreed with that position as well, thus opening the way for voter-registration drives in the South.
Intriguingly, Roosevelt did say, at about the same time as the CRS was proposing it, that such a case would be the best strategy for ensuring black voting rights.
He seems to have disliked speaking about this subject, but on this occasion he was pressed repeatedly.
And after a series of evasive answers, and a roundabout anecdote about talking to a black judge from Tennessee about it (unnamed, but almost certainly William Hastie of the NAACP LDF), Roosevelt said,
“There is a time element. You cannot get it in one year or two. We are all working and in time it will happen.… What about the court ruling, the Supreme Court?… That is a possibility.”
So, weirdly, you can draw a straight (if not ex ante predictable) line from the anti-corruption law to the pro-voting rights suits and the voter registration drives of the civil rights movement.
I am pleased to report that this thread has dragged Jason into the twitter age and now you can find him at @JasonScottSmit6
Jason, just so you know, I cannot take responsibility for what happens to you now
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