Political Activism Thriving in Federal Workforce

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, November 5, 2008; D03

David Sheagley and Darlene Tinsley, a husband-and-wife team employed by the Social Security Administration in Ohio, are political activists.

But, like other federal workers, they emphasize that their political activities are done on their own time.

Yesterday was their time to act.

And last night was their time to celebrate.

“I’m happy, very happy,” Tinsley said moments after news organizations declared Barack Obama victorious. “I can breathe again now.”

Hours before, they had worked the phones to push a big turnout for him. Using lists supplied by unions, they called laborers, electricians and construction workers to encourage them to vote.

If the workers had not yet voted, Sheagley and Tinsley read them a short script that said: “This election is critical for all working people. Over 90,000 people lost their jobs in Ohio this year, and unemployment is at 7.2 percent statewide. We need to change the direction of this country.”

Two weeks ago, they hosted about a dozen people for a phone-bank chili dinner in their Willoughby, Ohio, home. Using cellphones, “I think we made about 600 calls that night,” Sheagley said.

Sheagley and Tinsley are among many federal workers who spent Election Day campaigning for their candidates, within permitted guidelines of course, or working in a nonpartisan way to ensure a fair election.

The Justice Department said it deployed more than 800 federal observers and department personnel to 59 jurisdictions in 23 states.

“Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Justice Department has regularly sent observers and monitors around the country to protect voters’ rights,” Jamie Hais, a department spokesman wrote in an e-mail.

The Office of Personnel Management provided another 660 people to monitor elections at 22 sites in 11 states — Alabama, Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, South Dakota and Texas.

The OPM said its coverage focused on racial and ethnic matters and minority language issues. If local election officials provided signs and ballots and interpreters in foreign languages, OPM staffers made sure the signage was appropriate and the interpreting was done properly. The minority languages went well beyond Spanish and included Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), Choctaw, Hopi, Keresan, Navajo, Towa and Vietnamese.

OPM monitors do not interpret for voters or provide direct assistance to them.

“When we talk of the OPM role to provide observers, it is very literal ‘observers’; there is no discussion,” OPM Associate Director Kay Ely said.

If they do observe improprieties, captains of their field teams “report it immediately” to the Justice Department, she added.

Neal Orringer, a professional staffer with the Senate Banking Committee, found long lines but no improprieties as he worked for Obama and other Democrats at polling places in Silver Spring yesterday morning.

He has participated in Election Day activities before, but it’s never been like this.

“Oh, my gosh, the turnout has been amazing,” he said during a midday break.

“I’ve never seen turnout like this,” he added. “People are patiently waiting in lines, but the lines are snaking around the building. People are jazzed up.”

Orringer took a vacation day to coordinate Democratic poll workers. One of the things they look for is the turnout numbers provided at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. If the numbers are lower than expected, he said, the party “can deploy what they call ‘flushers’ to known Democratic houses to get out the vote.”

That was not the case yesterday.

“If I remember correctly, the turnout at some of these precincts just at 10 a.m. was larger than the entire turnout in 2004,” Orringer said.

An enlightened federal policy for employees encourages them to turn out and vote for their bosses. The policy provides workers up to three hours of excused time off to vote at the beginning or end of the work day. Acting OPM Director Michael Hager declined a request from Reps. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) to extend that to five hours.

But sometimes the interpretation of good policy can have stifling consequences.

One Energy Department employee needed the extra two hours the congressmen suggested and was willing to take annual leave to get it. Unfortunately, she ran into a bureaucratic interpretation of the rules.

Dave Schoeberlein, president of a National Treasury Employees Union chapter at the department, said the employee was told she could not get 30 minutes of excused time if it was preceded by two hours of vacation.

In an e-mail to Energy officials, Schoeberlein complained about “blind adherence to silly rules even when the decision flies in the face of the intent of the original rule and results in the unintended consequence of creating ‘second-class’ employees.”

Schoeberlein said the employee did not want to be interviewed. Andy Beck, an agency spokesman, said “DOE is following OPM’s guidance.”

Contact Joe Davidson atfederaldiary@washpost.com.