Slightly inspired by this question, is there a limitation on the number of pardons a president could offer, such that it could sway the outcome of the next election?

Take for example, Florida, typically a swing state, with an incarcerated population large enough to substantially sway the vote should every individual in the state be pardoned.

Florida was the determining factor in previous elections, so is there a reason that a sitting president wouldn't just pardon an entire prison population a week before an election, in order to influence the votes?

(Assuming that pardoned individuals would feel indebted to vote for their pardoner.)

Edit: Because there seems to be some misconceptions, I understand it's not a good or practical idea. Instead, what I'm asking is "Is this possible?"

  • Downvoters, care to leave a comment?
    – Erin B
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 18:12
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    @ErinB I think they are upset with you for potentially giving POTUS such a terrible, but potentially actionable, idea, on the assumption that no action is beneath him.
    – cpcodes
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 18:40
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    Do you intend to limit the scope of action (on the part of the pardoned) to just that person's ability to act individually at the ballot box? For example, is it possible for a ultra-wealthy person, having been pardoned, shows this gratitude by spending hundreds of millions in PAC donations. Huge spending can sway elections - no?
    – BobE
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 18:47
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    there was a recent "mass pardon" by an exiting US governor. given the backlash it occasioned, it seems rather obvious that the numbers of extra votes would be far outweighed by votes lost by people who would vote against the sitting POTUS in protest to this pardon. this is both a hypothetical question, one just asking for opinions (I've given mine) and seems to want to link Trump to this, as cpcodes has said. -1. Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 20:22
  • The POTUS can only pardon those in federal prison/convicted of federal crimes. Your article says 99K of 176K in Florida are in State prison. The remaining 77K are not all in federal either, because it includes local, youth, and involuntary commitment. also.
    – Damila
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 3:42

4 Answers 4


Can a US President realistically pardon enough people to sway an election?

It is not likely such pardons it would have much effect.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, as of 15 February 2020, there were 141,593 U.S. citizens in Federal Correctional Institutions throughout the U.S. The total popular vote for Trump and Clinton, in 2016, was 128,838,342; or, the prison population would have an effect of about 0.11% for a similar popular vote.

The distribution of the prison population among all states would mean that no state should have as many as 20,000 ex-prisoners added to their voting roles. For the electoral college in 2016, only three states had vote margins of less than 20,000 totaling 21 electoral votes.

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    Spinning the original question further, it might be thinkable, though unlikely, that a President instructs governors belonging to his or her party to pardon criminals for state level crimes. Not sure if an executive order would be possible for that, though party-political pressure might suffice. If they comply for whatever reason, would that be enough to influence an election?
    – user20672
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 10:23
  • While I agree with your conclusion that there's no way the raw number of pardons would effect the results of any election, the President isn't limited to pardoning only those actually still incarcerated. Persons already convicted of a crime and those who are being prosecuted but not yet convicted can also be pardoned. The pardoned person doesn't even have to be alive (post your Chicago dead voter jokes now...)
    – Just Me
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 10:30
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    @Morfildur Executive orders are directions the President gives to the departments of the Federal executive. They can't be used to order governors. Now, the governor could be asked to do this, and do it out of partisan loyalty, but you'd have to just trust the prisoners I guess?
    – Deolater
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 18:43

While highly unlikely in the U.S. today, it seems to me there is historical evidence to support an argument it is theoretically possible for a pardon to substantially impact elections.

In 1990 South African President F. W. de Klerk released a political prisoner, Nelson Mandela. In 1964, Mandela had be been sentenced to life imprisonment. 1994 Mandela was voted into power.

The political situation in South Africa was entirely different from that in the U.S., but the power to pardon someone convicted in the courts is indeed a potentially powerful one politically.


Here's a sort of "trick" answer, which let us hope is, and remains, entirely imaginary. Yes, the pardoned might sway an election, but indirectly, and only if the pardoned persons have certain attributes:

  • The pardoned are eager to immediately work for the incumbent.

  • The pardoned are highly skilled and capable criminals.

  • The pardoned are specifically skilled in crimes relating to disenfranchisement and election fraud, or if not, are skilled at crimes invaluable to support of other criminals who are.

So we might imagine a hypothetical villainous President might pardon people like:

  • a marksman assassin to execute the opposition's best organizers, reformers, and journalists.

  • a malevolent computer hacker, willing to attack the opposition's call centers, and computer systems, or attack the nation's polling places the better to alter the votes.

  • an influential ganglord, willing to organize goons to harass, threaten, and endanger opposing public gatherings.

  • a charismatic cult leader who can rally his followers to vote for the incumbent.

  • A brilliant shyster to help make the above pardons seem less preposterous, or to vex whistle-blowers.

Etc... The possible permutations for a bad-guy "Samurai" dream team of fixers seem endless.

If we remove the assumption of malice, an incumbent President might benignly use pardons to free jailed dissenters who:

  • favor the incumbent.

  • are charismatic and have large followings.

  • are rich enough to sponsor effective political assistance, be it ad campaigns, donations, opposition research, push-polling, etc.

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    As I pointed out in my comments to the original question - a pardon bestowed on one or two uber-wealthy individuals who show their gratitude by donating many millions to a presidential pact could well "sway" an election. Please consider adding that to your bullet list.
    – BobE
    Commented Feb 23, 2020 at 18:23
  • @BobE, Thanks -- agreed that my focus was too narrow. A near-example of a pardoned wealthy rogue and doner that springs to mind is tax-avoiding Clinton benefactor Marc Rich, but Rich was pardoned after the fact, and perhaps was pardoned more to diplomatically roll logs for Rich's Israeli admirers.
    – agc
    Commented Feb 24, 2020 at 4:09
  • That last bullet item seems dodgy... push-polling isn't really benign.
    – agc
    Commented Mar 14, 2020 at 4:39

There are no constitutional limits on the number of pardons that a president can issue. But there is very little evidence of three key points

  1. There is no reason to think that the large number of federal prisoners who are suddenly released would line up to vote for the president. Especially a Republican president, given how racially polarised both the prison system and the electorate are in the USA.

  2. There is no reason to think that this would have no effect on the voting intentions of the very many people who are not in prison. Such a move would be very unpopular (as it means returning large numbers of criminals back to their communities without support. Many would rapidly return to crime.

  3. There is no reason to think that anyone is considering this. These may be strange times in politics, but not that strange. This is in no way comparable to the President seeking to gain some electoral advantage by asking a foreign power to investigate his political opponent. This is the sort of act that would cause a massive rejection of the president's party and consequently most of the republican congresspeople and senators for election being removed from office by the electorate. A party will put up with a lot, but it won't put up with a president committing electoral suicide. Seeming insane actions like this would likely see the president removed from office, either by impeachment and conviction, or under the terms of amendment 25

  • 1) I personally would feel indebted to anyone who pardons my sentence, I don't see why a majority of a prison population wouldn't (reminder only majority is required to sway). 2) I'd be interested in a source on this one, my intuition is that people only turn to crime when they need to, on a whole. 3) I know lots of people in favor of prison reform, perhaps the move could be seen as a first step to a prison overhaul, or at least a party could certainly spin it positively in some way. Either way, does there need to be someone to consider doing it, to discuss if it's a possibility?
    – Erin B
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 18:09
  • @ErinB - 1) If someone is pardoned by someone who otherwise has views they totally oppose, it's reasonable to feel gratitude but still oppose them. In the extreme case, consider a Taliban fighter released from Guantanamo (or any similar setup) - they're not going to suddenly become supporters of the US because of it. They're more likely to go right back to what they were doing before being captured. There will certainly be some people who feel the way you do, but there's no guarantee of what percentage that will be.
    – Bobson
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 18:44
  • @ErinB - 2) It really depends what the crime the person is in prison for actually is. Drug possession charges are very different from tax fraud is very different from assault of a police officer. Many people currently incarcerated would be able to re-integrate, but many more will be unable to find jobs (even without the conviction on their record, there's suddenly a lot more workers around) and have no choice but to return to crime, and a blanket pardon would also release the repeat violent offenders who would just return to being violent. ....
    – Bobson
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 18:48
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    I absolutely understand all of those points, but I'm not asking if it's a "good" idea, I'm asking if it's possible. Updating question to reflect that.
    – Erin B
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 18:58
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    Thanks for the clarification. I think the core of my answer is (2) Yes. A president could swing an election, but only against him, since a blanket pardon would be so unpopular.
    – James K
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 20:53

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