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Can Felons Run for Public Office?

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Political aspirations don’t die out even after a felony conviction and serving a lengthy prison sentence. It may seem like an impossibility to serve in a governmental capacity. Well, don’t be so quick to give up. Maybe you can be elected to an office whether at the federal, state, or local level.

Let’s consider the issue. Can felons run for public office?

In this article, we’ll cover the following:

  • Constitutional Rights
  • State Requirements to Hold Public Office
  • Federal Requirements to Hold Public Office
  • Can a Felon Run for City Council?
  • Can a Convicted Felon Run for Congress?
  • People With Felonies Who Have Held Public Office
  • Having Civil Rights Restored
  • Having a Plan for Success


Constitutional Rights

The original Constitution in the United States was established in 1789. The Constitution defines the structure, functions, powers, and limits of the national government. It also lays out the individual freedoms, rights, and obligations. 

The U.S. has a Federal Constitution, and each state also has its own constitution.  

The Constitutional rights of citizens are established in this document. A constitutional right is a duty, power, or a restriction of power. All Constitutional rights are written in the national Constitution that is the supreme law of the U.S. Together these are called the Bill of Rights

No other laws that may be passed by the legislative body can contradict the Constitution or considered unconstitutional and invalid. Constitutional rights can be altered only by amending the Constitution.  

U.S. Constitutional rights take precedence over any state Constitution. State constitutions can add rights for citizens, but they can’t take away any U.S. Constitutional rights.  

Constitutional rights limit the power of individuals as related to the government. Constitutional rights do not apply to a person’s rights relative to another individual.  

The federal government must always stay within the limits of any Constitutional rights when adopting laws to change those rights. That means that the federal government cannot pass a law that would limit the Constitutional right of free speech. An amendment would have to be added to prevent this right.

State Requirements to Hold Public Office

The question of whether felons can hold public office depends on the state. In some states, felons with a conviction older than 10 years may hold public office. 

Other states refuse to allow anyone convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude from serving in an elected office. Moral turpitude includes lying, deceit, fraud, and receiving public funds, or breaking financial responsibilities.  

If you are convicted of a crime of moral turpitude in Georgia, you may not hold public office unless your rights have been restored and at least 10 years have passed since the completion of your sentence.  You must also not be convicted of an additional crime of moral turpitude since the original offense was committed.

Election laws are different from one state to another.  

Typical qualifications to run for office include the following: 

  • Residency – You must be a resident in the district you plan to represent full-time or have your primary residence there.  
  • Time in the district – You also may be required to have lived in the district for a certain amount of time from a few months to a year or longer.  
  • Age – Some offices have a minimum age requirement.
  • Other qualifications – It is not common to require law enforcement experience to run for sheriff, for example. However, you must be an attorney in your state before you can run for a legal office like District Attorney, prosecutor, or judge.  

Federal Requirements to Hold Public Office

Federal elected positions are different from state offices. This because the U.S. Constitution takes an approach to governing that leaves decisions up to individual states.  

Federal rights to hold office are different from those at the state level. There is an established standard that must be met for all federal offices. These rights do depend on the office in question.

To run for Congress, you must be at least 25 years old and a citizen of the U.S. for seven years to run for the House. You must be at least 30 years old and a citizen for at least nine years to run for the Senate.  You must be a resident of the state where you live for any Congressional position.

The requirements to run for president are to be at least 35 years old, a natural-born citizen, and a resident of the U.S. for at least 14 years.  

Can a Felon Run for City Council?

How about the city council? Can a felon run for this office?

The city council is a group of officials that have been elected by the public to serve a city as its government. The duties of the city council include proposing, passing, and establishing ordinances and laws.  

A city councilman is a member of a city’s legislature and is responsible for representing the interests of that district. A city councilman has specific residency requirements established by a city to run for city council. 

Yes, a felon can run for city council. You can also run for mayor who is the primary official.

Can a Convicted Felon Run for Congress?

Yes, it is possible for a felon to run for the U.S. Congress and be elected to serve. The House and Senate can vote to expel any elected member that other members deem unfit or unqualified to serve. 

The qualifications to run for Congress are laid out, and members of the House and Senate fulfill the requirements outlined above to be eligible. These specify factors relating to age, citizenship, and residency. As long as you meet these criteria you can have your name on the Congressional ballot.

Since it is a federal office, the federal government establishes these requirements. The Supreme Court even ruled that states may not alter these criteria. This is an example of the separation of federal and state powers.

In fact, there have been a number of individuals who have run for Congress over the years. Not all were successful, but some were elected. Congress still retains the right to oust anyone that they do not believe is fit to serve.

People With Felonies Who Have Held Public Office

I am sure all of us can think of individuals who have been in office and then charged with a crime or even convicted. Many politicians have either been removed from office or resigned in the face of criminal charges.

Well, there are also instances of felons who have served their time, met the conditions of probation, and had their rights restored. This would allow them to run for office. There are times when some of these people have been elected. Some have been convicted while in office and still served.

Let’s take a look at some of them through the years, starting with the federal level.

As far back as 1798, Matthew Lyon was elected to Congress after being convicted of libel. He served even after efforts to oust him from his position.

Thomas J. Lane was convicted of tax evasion, and he was re-elected three times to Congress in the 1950s.

Congressman Jesse Helms was found guilty of violating the Voting Rights Act. Representative Dan Rostenkowski was convicted of embezzlement and served in Congress.

Not just at the federal level, but also at the state and local level, felons have found success in running for office. Governor Evan Mecham of Arizona served after being convicted of obstruction of justice and misuse of campaign funds. 

Jermaine Wilson was recently elected as mayor of Leavenworth, Kansas, while Ray Hebron was voted into office as mayor of Ball, Louisiana.

Having Civil Rights Restored

Loss of civil rights affects your ability to hold public office, but it does not affect your right to run for office. To be able to serve in a public office, felons must have their civil rights restored.

To do this, felons who have completed their sentence, including probation and have no criminal charges or restitution outstanding may be eligible to apply for clemency. This will restore those civil rights. It does not establish innocence, and the record will remain for public viewing.  

Having a Plan for Success

As a felon whose rights have been restored, you need a plan for how to be successful in getting elected. 

 Your conviction is part of the public record and cannot be hidden from view. This means that all other candidates and potential voters can see those criminal records. So, how do you handle that?

You shouldn’t try and hide the conviction, but you don’t have to make it a headline either. As you tell your story, it can become part of the details.

It was a time in your life when you made mistakes. Then you came to a decision to live your life differently, with public service being a major part of it.

During the campaign, your criminal record is there, but it is part of the past. It doesn’t have to define you.

When the issue is raised by another candidate, it is important to be open and honest but not be defensive or dwell on the mistakes of the past.

You should put it out there for what it is, but once you have done so, you should leave it alone and not draw more attention to it. Let it die out and remain focused on the election.

Remember that other felons have preceded you and found a way to be successful in getting elected to public office. You can use them as an inspiration. Don’t get discouraged and give up. You can find a way if you believe in yourself.

What do you think about this article? Have you or someone you know been in the situation of trying to run for public office with a felony? What was that like, and did he or she achieve success? Please tell us in the comments below.

1 thought on “Can Felons Run for Public Office?”

  1. I served 16 years as a township earlier in my life. Youngest elected official in my county at the time. I worked hard as a trustee, always returned calls & world to professionalize our government. We went from volunteer departments to having full time police, firemen & paramedics. We updated zoning and were the second township in the state to create an enterprise zone where we could attract companies using tax abatements. One company which we did attract is still here and growing. I chose to take a break from public office to devote more time to my family with the thought that I would like to run again when I retired from my day job. 15 years later right about when I was going to retire I caught a felony. This fall 8 years after my plea there will be another election for a vacant seat on the board and I have had dozens of people telling me that they want me to run. I tell them I would like to but can’t due to my prior legal issues. I had reason to go to a trustee meeting this past Monday, my first one since 1996 and was surprised at how many issues arose for which I had background knowledge. Drainage issues, abandoned barrels of waste, abandoned industrial property cleanup and drainage issues. According to Ohio State law I can’t run for or hold office, but I would love to and I know that the community would be well served.

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