State laws vary widely as to whether felons can run for office

WASHINGTON (AP) — The case of a defeated New Mexico candidate who was arrested in a politically motivated killing spree has spotlighted an issue that has been developing in the States: whether people with criminal convictions are eligible to run for public office to run for office.

Solomon Peña, as a Republican, overwhelmingly lost a bid for the New Mexico statehouse and is accused of paying four men to shoot at the homes of four Democratic officials. He had denied his loss and made unfounded claims that November’s election had been “rigged” against him, despite receiving just 26% of the vote against the long-time Democratic incumbent.

While the case of politically motivated violence is sounding the alarm In the United States, it also highlights national differences in whether individuals with prior criminal convictions can run for office. Peña spent nine years behind bars after being convicted of membership in a retail theft ring.

States have a number of laws designed to restore the rights of felons. In most states, the opportunity to seek state or local office coincides with the restoration of voting rights.

But even in some states where election is automatically restored, criminals still need to be pardoned or erased to run for office, said Margaret Love, co-founder and director of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, which has a 50-state database leads about the restoration of rights.

Some states, including Louisiana and Nebraska, have additional time requirements for when an individual’s eligibility to run can be reinstated. States that require a pardon may differ as to who has the power of pardon.

Peña, 39, was arrested in April 2007 and charged with stealing electronics and other goods from several retail stores as part of a burglary squad. He was released from prison in 2016 and regained his voting rights after five years of probation in 2021, correctional facility officials said.

His opponent filed a lawsuit last year challenging Peña’s eligibility to run for office, but New Mexico District Court Judge Joshua Allison said the state’s constitution only requires that he be a qualified voter to be eligible for office. In a ruling that is being appealed, the judge said any attempt by the legislature to impose additional requirements was unconstitutional.

In New Mexico, voting rights are now automatically restored upon completion of a sentence, Lauren Rodriguez, the prosecutor’s communications director, said in a written response to questions.

Some states do not allow persons with felony convictions to run for office, while others impose various restrictions.

Earlier this month, on the two-year anniversary of his involvement in the attack on the US Capitol, former West Virginia state legislator Derrick Evans announced that he would run for a seat in the US House of Representatives in 2024 in 2022.

With his felony conviction and three-year suspended sentence, state law would bar Evans from voting or seeking state or local office. Under this law, even after serving his sentence, he would not be able to run again for the legislature or magistrate, a limited judicial office open to non-lawyers.

There is no such limit when running for federal office.

University of Iowa law professor Derek Muller said the 14th amendment regulates who cannot run for federal office. The list includes those who took an oath to support the US Constitution and then took part in riots or rebellions, or those who gave aid or comfort to the country’s enemies.

“That’s the only thing that specifically disqualifies you under the Constitution,” he said.

Donald Kersey III, assistant secretary and general counsel to the West Virginia Secretary of State, said Evans has not been convicted of insurrection or treason and therefore appears eligible to run for Congress.

In Georgia, a person convicted of a crime related to “moral depravity” cannot hold office unless the state parole board grants a pardon or restoration of civil and political rights. Most violent crimes and most crimes involving theft of money are crimes of moral depravity, but some, like the crime of DUI, are not.

A felony conviction in Illinois bars people from holding any municipal office—such as mayor or trustee of the village board—unless they are pardoned or the state governor restores their rights. Illinois also prohibits persons with a felony conviction from serving as a county sheriff or holding any political office overseeing a fire district, public library, or park district.

In Virginia, people convicted of crimes are automatically stripped of their civil rights. The state constitution gives the governor sole discretion to restore them, except for gun rights. With the restoration of voting rights comes the possibility of aspiring to public office.

Candidates with criminal records may hold office in New Hampshire once their sentences are served, except for those convicted of bribery or corruption in order to be elected or receive an appointment.

Louisians approved a 1997 constitutional amendment that banned convicted felons from seeking or holding public office for 15 years after serving their sentence. But a 2016 Supreme Court ruling overturned it.

In 2018, too, voters in the federal states overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment on this topic. This prohibits convicted criminals, unless they are pardoned, from seeking or holding public office for up to five years after serving their sentence.

In Nebraska, the law has several tiers. The first is a two-year waiting period after completing a sentence to restore voting rights. This allows someone to seek office but not hold it – which requires a pardon.

Sam Titus, 66, defeated the incumbent Democrat in his Burt County supervisor race in November. But to take office, he had to wait until his pardon was granted more than a month later by a panel that included the governor, the secretary of state and the attorney general.

Titus was convicted years ago of two felonies, including buying a stolen planter for his farm, which he described as a “bad decision”. He was serving parole and thought the convictions had been overturned. He discovered the pardon after winning a race for the local airport authority in 2020 and learning he could not be sworn in.

Titus sought a pardon in January 2021 but did not receive a hearing until December 2022. He said he told voters about his criminal record during the campaign and said he needed a pardon to get a seat.

Titus said his situation shows how difficult the legal system can be to deal with, but also why states should provide a way for criminals who have spent their time serving the public good.

“Our legislators really need to recognize the importance of helping those who have transformed their lives, understand their mistakes, are good people, want to move forward, want to do the right thing, and want to give back to people what they’ve hurt,” he said he.

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Funk reported from Omaha, Nebraska. Associated Press writer Leah Willingham in Charleston, West Virginia, and AP Statehouse reporters in the US contributed to this report.

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