WASHINGTON (AP) — The case of a defeated New Mexico candidate arrested in a politically motivated shooting spree has turned a spotlight on an issue that has been evolving in the states: whether people with criminal convictions are eligible to run for public office.
Solomon Peña overwhelmingly lost a bid for the New Mexico statehouse as a Republican and is accused of paying four men to shoot at the homes of four Democratic officials. He had denied his loss and made baseless claims that the November election was “rigged” against him, even though he received just 26% of the vote against the longtime Democratic incumbent.
While the case raises alarms over politically motivated violence in the U.S., it also highlights differences across the country in whether people with past criminal convictions can run for office. Peña spent nine years behind bars after being convicted of being part of a retail theft ring.
The states have a range of laws for reinstating rights to felons. In most states, the ability to seek state or local office coincides with the restoration of voting rights.
But even in some states where the vote is restored automatically, felons still need to get a pardon or expungement to run for office, said Margaret Love, co-founder and director of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, which keeps a 50-state database on restoration of rights.
Some states, including Louisiana and Nebraska, have additional time requirements on when someone’s eligibility to run for office can be restored. States that require a pardon can vary on who has the pardoning authority.
Peña, 39, was arrested in April 2007, accused of stealing electronics and other goods from several retail stores as part of a burglary crew. He was released from prison in 2016, and had his voting rights restored after completing five years of probation in 2021, corrections officials said.
His opponent last year filed a lawsuit questioning Peña's eligibility to seek office, but New Mexico District Court Judge Joshua Allison said the state constitution only required that he be a qualified voter to be eligible for elected office. In a ruling that is being appealed, the judge said any attempt by the state legislature to impose additional requirements would be unconstitutional.
In New Mexico, voting rights are now automatically reinstated upon completion of a sentence, Lauren Rodriguez, communications director for the state attorney general's office, said in a written response to questions.
Some states don't allow those with felony convictions to run for office, while others impose various restrictions.
Earlier this month, on the two-year anniversary of his participation in the attack on the U.S. Capitol, former West Virginia state lawmaker Derrick Evans announced he would run for a U.S. House seat in 2024. That's despite pleading guilty to a felony civil disorder charge in 2022.
With his felony conviction and a sentence that includes three years of probation, state law would prohibit Evans from voting or seeking state or local office. Under that law, even when he finishes his sentence he would be unable to run again for the legislature or for magistrate, a limited judicial post that is open to non-lawyers.
There are no such limits to run for federal office.
University of Iowa law professor Derek Muller said the Constitution's 14th Amendment spells out who would be unable to run for federal office. The list includes those who took an oath to support the U.S. Constitution and then engaged in insurrection or rebellion, or those who gave aid or comfort to the country’s enemies.
"That’s the only thing that expressly disqualifies you under the Constitution,” he said.
Donald Kersey III, deputy secretary and general counsel for the West Virginia secretary of state’s office, said Evans was not convicted of insurrection or treason and therefore appears eligible to run for Congress.
In Georgia, a person convicted of a felony involving “moral turpitude” can hold office only if the state Board of Pardons and Paroles grants a pardon or a restoration of civil and political rights. Most violent crimes and most felonies involving stealing money are crimes of moral turpitude, but some, like felony DUI, are not.
A felony conviction in Illinois bars people from holding any municipal office — for instance, as a city mayor or village board trustee — unless they receive a pardon or the state’s governor restores their rights. Illinois also bars people with a felony conviction from serving as a county sheriff, or taking on a political office overseeing a fire protection district, a public library board or a park district.
In Virginia, people convicted of felonies are automatically stripped of their civil rights. The state constitution gives the governor the sole discretion to restore them, apart from gun rights. With the restoration of voting rights comes the ability to seek public office.
Candidates with felony criminal records can hold office in New Hampshire once their sentences are finished, except for those convicted of bribery or corruption to get elected or obtain an appointment.
Louisianans approved a constitutional amendment in 1997 that barred convicted felons from seeking or holding public office for 15 years following the completion of their sentence. But a 2016 state Supreme Court ruling nullified it.
In 2018, state voters again overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment on the subject. This one prohibits convicted felons, unless pardoned, from seeking or holding public office until five years after completing their sentence.
In Nebraska, the law has several steps. First is a two-year wait after the completion of a sentence to have voting rights restored. That 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, secretary of state and attorney general.
Titus had two felony convictions from years ago, including for buying a stolen planter for his farm, which he described as a “poor decision.” He served probation and thought the convictions had been expunged. He discovered the pardon requirement after winning a race in 2020 for the local airport authority board and learning he could not be sworn in.
Titus applied for a pardon in January 2021 but did not get a hearing until December 2022. He said he told voters about his criminal record as he campaigned and explained he would need a pardon to be seated.
Titus said his situation shows how difficult it can be to deal with the legal system, but also why states should provide a pathway for felons who have done their time to serve the public.
“Our lawmakers truly need to realize how important it is to help those that have changed their lives, understand their wrongs, are good people, want to move forward, want to do the right thing and want to give back to those people that they have hurt,” he said.
Funk reported from Omaha, Nebraska. Associated Press writer Leah Willingham in Charleston, West Virginia, and AP statehouse reporters across the U.S. contributed to this report.