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Can You Run for President If You’re in Prison?

Running for president of the United States is no easy feat. It requires an enormous amount of time, resources, and effort to mount a successful presidential campaign. However, there are certain legal requirements and restrictions on who can actually run for the nation’s highest office. One interesting question is whether someone who is currently incarcerated in prison can legally run for president. This article will explore the legal issues around running for president from prison.

Constitutional Requirements for Presidential Candidates

The Constitution sets out a few basic requirements to be eligible for the presidency. According to Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, to be president you must:

  • Be a natural born citizen of the United States
  • Be at least 35 years old
  • Have been a resident of the United States for at least 14 years

That’s it. There are no prohibitions around criminal records, indictments, or convictions. The Constitution does not say that people in prison or with criminal histories cannot run for president. So from a constitutional standpoint, it appears that someone in prison could technically run for president.

What About State Ballot Access Laws?

However, each state has its own laws around access to the presidential ballot. Many states prohibit convicted felons who are incarcerated from voting, much less running for office. These state laws could present difficulties for a presidential candidate who is behind bars.

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Getting onto the ballot across 50 different states with different eligibility laws would likely be a major obstacle. A candidate in prison would face legal challenges in many states to their ballot eligibility. But it may not necessarily be impossible.

Practical Challenges of Running from Prison

Even if a candidate could overcome the legal and ballot access hurdles, there would be enormous practical challenges to actually running an effective presidential campaign from prison.

Lack of Access & Communication

First, a candidate behind bars would have very little access to the outside world. They would not be able to travel the country to meet voters or attend debates. Their communication would be severely restricted, limiting their ability to conduct interviews or run a modern political campaign. They may have to rely on surrogates and supporters outside of prison much more.

Criminal Record Stigma

Additionally, having a criminal record brings a certain social stigma in American society. Some voters will immediately disqualify and dismiss candidates with a conviction history. It would likely limit the pool of potential supporters.

Fundraising Difficulties

Fundraising is also a massive hurdle for major political campaigns. Presidential bids require raising hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars. For a candidate stuck in prison, those fundraising activities would be extremely limited. They would lack the ability to attend fundraisers or donor events. Supporters on the outside could potentially run fundraising efforts, but the candidate themselves would be severely constrained.

Security & Safety Concerns

Finally, there are real concerns around security and safety. Presidential candidates receive Secret Service protection because they can be targets for attacks. But securing and protecting a candidate who is already incarcerated presents challenges. Prison officials may be very reluctant to allow a high-profile inmate increased privileges or exposure.

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Has Anyone Ever Run for President from Prison?

There is some historical precedent for presidential candidates running campaigns from prison or jail. Here are a few examples:

Eugene V. Debs – 1920

In the 1920 election, labor activist and five-time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs ran again while incarcerated in an Atlanta federal prison for speaking out against World War I. He received over 900,000 votes – 3.4% nationwide – but did not win any states.

Lyndon LaRouche – 1992 to 2004

Political activist Lyndon LaRouche ran for president four times while serving a federal prison sentence for conspiracy, mail fraud, and tax code violations. He ran in 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004, but received only a small fraction of votes each time.

Keith Judd – 2012

Keith Judd was serving a federal prison sentence when he put his name on the 2012 Democratic primary ballot in West Virginia. Inmate No. 11593-051 received over 40% of the primary vote and won several counties against incumbent President Barack Obama.

So while it’s exceptionally rare, people on the inside have attempted presidential runs before. But no one has come close to winning from behind bars. The obstacles are simply immense.

Could a President Serve from Prison?

While highly unlikely, if a current inmate somehow won the presidency, could they actually serve their term while incarcerated? There is no definitive legal answer, but most experts think not.

The president must be able to fulfill their duties as chief executive, commander in chief, and head of state. It’s highly doubtful a president could execute their powers to the fullest extent while in prison. They would immediately face calls to resign or be impeached.

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But the Constitution does not explicitly say the president must be free or cannot serve from prison. So we can’t rule it out entirely.


While the Constitution does not prohibit currently incarcerated felons from running for president, the real-world obstacles make mounting a competitive presidential bid extremely difficult. Ballot access, fundraising, communication, and stigma present challenges. But a few longshot candidates have tried before. Ultimately, it appears very unlikely that someone could run and be elected president while in prison. The demands of the modern presidency essentially require freedom and mobility to fully execute the powers of the office.

So in theory, you can run for president if you’re in prison. In practice, your chances are somewhere between slim and none. The many legal and logistical challenges likely preclude any realistic path to victory for an incarcerated presidential contender.

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About us

We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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