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While the debate rages on in America about free and fair elections – and which candidate actually won the Presidential election – it got me thinking about prison inmates and felons in relation to the electoral process.
It’s no secret that when you go to prison, you give up some of your rights. There is no 4th amendment right to privacy or the 2nd amendment right to bear arms. Unless you are in prison in Maine or Vermont, you also give up your right to vote.
I was in prison from 2013 to 2017, so I wasn’t able to vote in the 2016 presidential election. Luckily, I got off parole in early 2020, so I had enough time to get my voting rights back for the 2020 contest.
While I re-registered to vote, I found out that in my home state of Missouri, I could no longer run for any political office in the state. I lost that privilege the moment I became a felon. But, what about running for president? Do felons lose that privilege too? This leads us to today’s blog topic: Can you run for president in prison?
In this blog post I will cover the following topics:
Believe it or not, a prison inmate can run for president. The US Constitution lays out the requirements to run for the office.
Nowhere in the Constitution does it specify that a presidential candidate must not be a prisoner or needs to be eligible and registered to vote.
The question as to whether the incarceration of the President amounts to an “impairment” that prevents the President from performing the duties of the office has obviously never been adjudicated. This means that if a prison inmate was actually elected President, it isn’t clear if he or she would be allowed to hold the office.
I should note that the Vice President does not become acting President when the President is “impaired.” Instead, one of the two processes in the Twenty-Fifth Amendment must happen.
The President must voluntarily step aside to allow the Vice President to be acting President, or the Vice President must submit to Congress the declaration required by Amendment XXV, Section 4 to force the President to step aside.
If there is a dispute, Section 4 places the decision as to whether the President is “impaired” in the hands of Congress, requiring a two-thirds vote of both houses.
If a presidential candidate wins an election and is in the custody of the federal Bureau of Prisons, then they could order their own release. This is because the BOP is an executive agency that reports to the President.
However, if the winning candidate is in the custody of a state’s department of corrections, there is no clear mechanism that would guarantee their release. The President doesn’t have the authority to pardon anyone convicted of committing a state crime.
I must also point out that a Member of Congress who is incarcerated is arguably entitled to be released from incarceration in order to attend Congress while it is in session. This is thanks to the legislative immunity clause in Article I Section 6 of the US Constitution, but there is no similar provision for the President.
Two incarcerated men have run for President in US history.
In 1920, labor leader Eugene V. Debs was serving a ten-year sentence in an Atlanta penitentiary when he lost the Presidential election. Two years earlier, he had spoken out against American’s involvement in World War I, and he was eventually convicted of violating the Espionage Act of 1917. The prosecution argued that Debs’ anti-war speech obstructed military enrollment.
Debs had previously run for President four times. His fifth and final campaign featured a campaign button that encouraged people to vote “for President Convict No. 9653.” Debs earned nearly one million votes in the 1920 election. And the man who beat him – Warren G. Harding – commuted Debs’ sentence in December 1921.
In 1992, Lyndon LaRouche became the second person in American history to run for president from a prison cell. His running mate – American Civil Rights Movement leader, Reverend James Bevel – did the active campaigning. And, classical violinist Norbert Brainin performed a benefit concert on LaRouche’s behalf in Washington DC.
Would you vote for a candidate who was behind bars? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Can you run for President from prison? https://www.wfyi.org/programs/simple-civics/television/can-you-run-for-president-from-prison-1 Has Anyone Ever Run for President While in Prison? And More Questions From Our Readers https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/run-president-prison-ask-smithsonian-180974594/
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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