A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Felons in Elected Office


Q: Can a convicted felon serve in elected office?

A: The Constitution allows a convicted felon, such as Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, to be a member of Congress, even if in prison. It’s up to the Senate or House to decide who may serve. As for state offices, different laws apply in different places.

FULL ANSWER

Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens was convicted on seven felony counts of corruption in late October. Stevens ran for reelection Nov. 4 against Democrat Mark Begich, and the two are awaiting the official results, as votes are still being counted. Begich’s lead increased to about 1,000 votes on Nov. 15, however.

It is possible for a felon to serve in the U.S. Congress – but the House and Senate can vote to expel any member that colleagues deem unfit or unqualified to serve.  And even if Stevens does end up winning the election in Alaska, he faces a probable expulsion vote in the Senate. He says he’ll appeal his conviction, and he has yet to be sentenced.

Update: Begich was declared the winner of the election on Nov. 18.

Federal office qualifications are governed by the Constitution, while state-level office rules vary according to state laws.

Federal Office Holders

The Constitution requires that members of the House and Senate fulfill three requirements:

  • All members of the House must be at least 25 years old, and members of the Senate must be at least 30 years old.
  • Members of the House must have been a U.S. citizen for at least seven years, and members of the Senate must have been a U.S. citizen for at least nine years.
  • They have to be an "inhabitant" of the state "when elected."
As a result, according to the Congressional Research Service, committing a crime cannot constitutionally disqualify someone from serving in Congress. And the state has no say in determining whether or not someone is qualified to serve in the House or Senate:
 

CRS: [S]ince a State does not have the authority to add qualifications for federal offices, the fact of conviction, even for a felony offense, could not be used to keep a candidate off of the ballot under State law either as a direct disqualification of convicted felons from holding or being a candidate for office, or as a disqualification of one who is no longer a “qualified elector” in the State. Once a person meets the three constitutional qualifications of age, citizenship and inhabitancy in the State when elected, that person, if duly elected, is constitutionally “qualified” to serve in Congress, even if a convicted felon.

Prison is not a bar to running for federal office, either. In 1798, Rep. Matthew Lyon ran for Congress from prison and won. He assumed his seat in Congress after serving four months in prison for "libeling" President John Adams. An effort was made to expel Lyon from the House, but it failed.

Ultimately, it is up to the House or Senate chamber to determine whether or not an elected official is qualified to serve if a challenge is raised.

State-Level Office

The qualifications for state-level office are determined by state law. In Texas, for example, barring a pardon or other, formal "judicial release" from felon status, an individual convicted of a felony cannot run for public office, even though he or she may be able to vote. In Connecticut, according to staff attorney Ted Bromley with the state’s secretary of state office, a former felon can have the right to vote, run for office and serve in elected office restored if the person has paid all penalties or served all sentences in full and is not on parole. To determine whether you are eligible to run for or hold public office (there has been at least one case in which a person has been allowed to run, but not hold elected office), check with your state’s secretary of state’s office. 

– Emi Kolawole

Sources

U.S. Constitution, Article I.

Maskell, Jack. Congressional Candidacy, Incarceration, and the Constitution’s Inhabitancy Qualification. Congressional Research Service, 12 Aug. 2002.

McGeehan, Ann. Effect of Felony Conviction on Voter Registration.  Texas Secretary of State, 3 Aug. 2004.

Reinhart, Christopher. Consequences of a Felony Conviction. Office of Legislative Research, 12 Jan. 2000.