The recent arrest of a New Mexico political candidate has highlighted a series of disparate state laws dictating whether people with felony convictions are eligible to run for public office.
Solomon Peña, a Republican candidate for the New Mexico statehouse, was arrested earlier this year for allegedly recruiting hired guns to shoot at the homes of Democratic lawmakers after he received just 26% of the vote in a race against a well-established Democratic incumbent. Peña rejected the election results and claimed the election was “rigged.”
Even if convicted, Peña could again become eligible to run for public office after completing his sentence, according to New Mexico law. Each state decides whether candidates with criminal convictions are eligible to hold office, resulting in a wide range of laws on the subject.
In many states, including New Mexico, would-be political candidates can run for office as soon as their voting rights have been restored. But in California, re-enfranchisement is not enough. State law requires candidates for public office to disclose felony convictions when running for high office, even an expunged conviction, according to the Shause California Law Group’s website.
California candidates who have been convicted under state or federal law of certain malfeasance such as vote-buying, bribery, perjury and forgery are permanently disqualified from holding office.
The rules for federal candidates are less complicated, said Derek Muller, a law professor at the University of Iowa. Under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Muller said, two crimes can disqualify a candidate from running: swearing to protect the Constitution and then engaging in insurrection or rebellion, or giving aid or comfort to the country’s enemies.
In West Virginia, Derrick Evans declared his 2024 candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives a year after pleading guilty to a felony civil disorder charge for his participation in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Because Evans was not convicted of treason or insurrection, he can still run for Congress, according to the deputy secretary and general counsel for West Virginia’s secretary of state.
In 2016, Peña finished a nine-year prison term after being convicted of retail theft. In 2021, his voting rights were restored, making him eligible to run for office.
Peña’s opponent sued to challenge Peña’s candidacy qualifications, but a New Mexico District Court judge ruled the state’s Constitution only requires candidates to have the right to vote.
New Mexico now re-enfranchises incarcerated persons upon completion of their sentences, said Lauren Rodriguez of the state attorney general’s office.
In Nebraska, convicted felons can run for office two years after release, but cannot hold office unless they are pardoned by a state panel. In 2020, Nebraska resident Sam Titus won a seat on a local airport authority board, but was unable to take office for two years, when the panel gave him a hearing in December, 2022.
“Our lawmakers truly need to realize how important it is to help those that have changed their lives,” Titus said.