Posts on Twitter claim Donald Trump’s historic indictment in New York will bar him from entering the 2024 presidential race. This is false; even if the former president is convicted of a felony, this would not necessarily disqualify him from running for office under the US constitution, legal experts told AFP.
“MAGA who think that Trump being indicted is going to put him back in the WH (White House) must not realize that prisoners can’t run for office,” a March 30 tweet said, using the acronym for the slogan “Make America Great Again.”
In the hours following the former president’s indictment — a formal accusation that a person has committed a crime — on March 30, social media users started speculating about Trump’s potential disqualification from the 2024 race — some tweets claiming that he could not run if he were sent to jail.
But the claims are incorrect. Trump’s indictment does not disqualify him, nor would being convicted of a felony or serving a prison sentence.
The United States Constitution sets out who may serve as president as follows:
“No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”
The constitution defines the “only legal qualifications” to run for or serve as president, said Nomi Claire Lazar, a professor of politics at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, Canada.
Research professor of law at the University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg College of Law, Joshua Douglas, agreed that the constitution has limited criteria for disqualifying a presidential candidate.
“Whether someone has been indicted, convicted, in jail, etc are not one of those criteria,” he told AFP.
Running from prison
In some cases, a sitting president who has been convicted of a felony could in theory be impeached, Lazar said, “but nothing would bar them from running in the first place.”
She added: “We have to imagine that the framers of the American Constitution probably never envisaged a scenario like the one America is currently facing.”
Felons have run for office in the past.
In 1920, Socialist candidate Eugene Debs — convicted of sedition for speaking in opposition to the draft in World War I — ran for president from his prison cell, gathering almost a million votes.
In 1798, candidate for Congress Matthew Lyon, ran a campaign from his cell after being arrested for “acting in opposition to the President” and won. He took up his seat after his release from prison, representing the state of Vermont.
As recently as 2012, a convicted and imprisoned felon ran in the West Virginia Democratic presidential primary against then-President Barack Obama, and gathered approximately 41 percent of the vote, said Case Western Reserve University law professor Atiba Ellis.
“This shows that in a state without any form of disqualification provisions, a candidate could literally run from prison in that state’s primary,” Ellis told AFP.
Ellis told AFP the constitution provides only two circumstances for the disqualification of a president.
One is impeachment and conviction of a sitting president for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” he said.
But it presumes “the sitting president would be removed at the point of conviction by the Senate, and not before,” and as a result having no impact on a felon from running for office.
The other condition is the disqualification for any United States official — including the president — who has engaged, abetted or aided acts of rebellion or insurrection against the United States.
“Much has been made of this clause over the past year in relation to whether former President Trump could run for office given his role in arguably inciting the January 6 insurrection,” Ellis said.
The professor noted that several states have procedures where a voter may contest the eligibility of a candidate on the ballot, for reasons including their criminal record and added that “depending on the state, voters in that state could argue that a convicted presidential candidate should not be on their ballot.”
Accordingly, a convicted felon can run for office, and, in theory, win a presidential election.
But voting is another matter, according to Ellis. “Even if there isn’t a disqualification for running for office, most states have some degree of disqualification from voting upon a criminal conviction. This would mean that, ironically, a candidate could be eligible to run for president but could be ineligible to vote for themselves in the same election.”
The New York case against Trump was set to be unsealed on April 4, 2023, revealing the charges against him. The former president has denounced the legal proceedings as a “witch hunt” and “political persecution.”