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Can You Run for President in Prison?

Can You Run for President in Prison?

While the debate about free and fair elections rages in America — and which candidate actually wins the presidency — it got me thinking about prison inmates and felons in relation to the electoral process.

We all know that when you go to jail, you give up some rights. There is no Fourth Amendment right to privacy or a Second Amendment right to bear arms. You also forfeit your right to vote unless you are in jail in Maine or Vermont.

I was in prison from 2013 to 2017 so I couldn’t vote in the 2016 presidential election. Fortunately, I was paroled in early 2020, so I have plenty of time to regain my voting rights in the 2020 election.

When I re-registered to vote, I discovered that in my home state of Missouri, I could no longer run for any political office in the state. The moment I became a felon, I lost that privilege. But what about running for president? Do felons lose this privilege too? Which leads to today’s blog topic: Can you run for president from prison?

In this blog post, I’ll cover the following topics:

  • Yes, Prison Inmates Can Run for President
  • Is imprisonment legally considered damage?
  • Two incarcerated men run for president in U.S. history

Yes, Prison Inmates Can Run for President

Believe it or not, prison inmates can run for president. The U.S. Constitution sets out the requirements for running for office.

  • 35 years or older;
  • A natural-born citizen of the United States (or a citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of the Constitution); and,
  • Lived in the United States for fourteen years

Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that presidential candidates cannot be prisoners or need to be eligible and registered to vote.

Is imprisonment legally considered damage?

The question of whether the president’s incarceration constituted “impairment” preventing the president from carrying out his public duties has apparently never been decided. That means that if a prison inmate is indeed elected president, it’s unclear whether he or she will be allowed to hold the office.

I should point out 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 take place.

The President must voluntarily abdicate for the Vice President to act as Acting President, or the Vice President must submit to Congress the declaration required by Section 4 of Amendment XXV to compel the President to abdicate.

If there is a dispute, Section 4 puts the decision on whether the president is “impaired” to Congress, requiring a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

If a presidential candidate wins the election and is detained by the federal Bureau of Prisons, then they can order their own release. This is because the BOP is an executive agency that reports to the President.

However, there is no clear mechanism in place to guarantee the winning candidate’s release if they are taken into custody by the state Department of Corrections. The president has no power to pardon anyone convicted of a state crime.

I must also point out that an incarcerated member of Congress is arguably entitled to be released from incarceration in order to attend Congress during its session. This is thanks to the legislative immunity clause of Article I, Section 6 of the U.S. Constitution, but there is no equivalent for the president.

There have been two incarcerated men running for president in American history.

When Labor leader Eugene V. Debs lost the presidential election in 1920, he was serving a 10-year sentence in an Atlanta prison. He was convicted of violating the 1917 Espionage Act after speaking out against U.S. involvement in World War I two years earlier. Prosecutors argued that Debs’ anti-war rhetoric prevented enlistment.

Debs has previously run for president four times. His fifth and final campaign featured a campaign button encouraging people to vote for “President 9653 Criminal.” Debs won nearly 1 million votes in the 1920 election. In December 1921, his man, Warren G. Harding, commuted Debs’ sentence.

In 1992, Lyndon LaRouche became only the second person in American history to run for president from a prison cell. His running mate, the Reverend James Bevel, an American civil rights leader, was heavily involved in the campaign. Additionally, classical violinist Norbert Brainin performed a benefit concert in Washington, DC on behalf of LaRouche.

Would you vote for a candidate behind bars? Let us know in the comments below.


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