West Virginia made national headlines last week after Keith Judd, a convicted felon serving a 17 1/2-year prison sentence for extortion at the Federal Correctional Institution in Texarkana, Texas, took 41 percent of the votes in the state’s Primary Election as a candidate for President of the United States. A a result of his candidacy and the subsequent 72,000 votes he received to Obama’s 106,000, misstatements and inaccuracies were circulated in print and social media, shaking the confidence of the electorate.
The law is simple. The qualifications for President of the United States are set only by the U.S. Constitution. Those requirements are three: Native born citizen; At least age 35; and Resident of United States for last 14 years.
No other qualifications are set for that office. Individual states cannot impose their own qualifications. Some publications have quoted, in part, a section of the West Virginia Constitution as support for the interpretation that a felon cannot be a candidate. However, the section applies only to “any state, county or municipal office” and does not apply to any federal office such as President. National constitutional experts confirm that a felon may run for federal office. At least 20 court decisions have upheld that principal; according to an Associated Press story of May 11, 2012.
Many passions have been raised by this situation. Those passions have caused otherwise intelligent individuals to suggest that the West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant should have rejected the filing. However, to do so would have violated her oath to uphold the constitutions of West Virginia and the United States, and would have overruled the previous practices of every Secretary of State since 1992.
In 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 a convicted felon was a candidate for president on the WV ballot. In 2008 a convicted felon would have been on the ballot but was not only because he missed a filing deadline. Even after the felon missed the deadline in 2008, the office of Secretary of State continued to assist his attempts to run for office as a write-in.
Our Secretary of State has followed the law. Sometimes following the law leads to an unpopular result. However, elected officials cannot substitute their opinion of what the law should be for what the law actually is.
We understand the passion of the voters and even the embarrassment that many citizens feel, but it was not within the Secretary of State’s power to break the law and deny the candidate access to the ballot. That is exactly the same constitutional position taken by Secretaries Hechler, Manchin, and Ireland, and others before them.