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It's possible for a U.S. citizen to run for President while in prison, as with Eugene Debs.

Suppose a prisoner runs and wins. Let's also suppose that the crimes in for which the prisoner is serving time for are undisputed and terrible, but for some reason the public generally finds that prisoner better than any alternatives.

Now elected, does the prisoner stay in prison, and attempt to fulfill their official duties from a cell, (not as unfeasible at it used to be if we permit the usage of computer networking), or pardon themselves and walk free, or are they on parole for four years, or what?

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    Inspired by reading a summary from 2000 of the OLC's opinions on whether sitting Presidents are (at least temporarilly) immune from criminal prosecution. – agc Sep 1 at 19:32
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    Given that 48 states don't allow serving prisoners to even vote, I don't think it's possible for a serving prisoner to even get on the ballot in 270 electoral votes worth of states. – Joe C Sep 1 at 20:09
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    @JoeC Being eligible to be on the ballot and being eligible to cast a ballot are two separate matters. – TylerH Sep 1 at 20:17
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    In the current political climate, it is possible an opposing candidate might be put in jail on trumped up charges in an attempt to prevent them from becoming president. There is a lot of time for this kind of malarky between Nov and late Jan and the current lack of scruples might see it happen AFTER then election. So, good question. – boatcoder Sep 3 at 16:07
  • @TylerH correct and electors can vote for almost whomever they wish, regardless of what is on the ballot. The only restriction is that an elector can not vote for a fellow same state resident for both President and Vice President. The prisoner should not pick his/her cell mate as VP. The VP should be a prisoner in another state. But if the prisoner has overwhelming electoral college superiority then the prisoner can pick whomever he/she wishes. – emory Sep 3 at 20:10
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Whether a President can pardon themselves is somewhat open for debate, no one has tried it and it's not explicitly allowed or disallowed. The other and more likely occurrence would be that the vice president takes over until the president is no longer in jail, pursuant to the 25th amendment. Presumably a vice president would pardon in such a situation, this would be the way an elected president would get out of jail. It's also possible that the president would be allowed accommodations to serve in jail or be allowed to serve their sentence in the white house. These option would require some approval from courts or prison wardens, but would likely be granted to a president. The need to always have a president would likely drive the 25th amendment option to be invoked before accommodations could be put in place.

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    Should mention the caveat about having to be in federal custody. – dandavis Sep 1 at 22:10
  • I'm curious about the specifics of being jailed (mostly an executive branch thing, not counting privately run prisons) while being the head of the executive branch. – CGCampbell Sep 2 at 15:32
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    The situation is different if they are incarcerated by one of the states, vs the federal government. Most prisoners in the U.S. are held under state authority, not federal. – RBarryYoung Sep 2 at 16:14
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    To clarify what Dandavis and RBarryYoung are hinting at, some people think Presidential Pardons can be given for any crime. In reality, they are Federal Pardons, so if you're incarcerated by one of the states, you're not in federal custody and the President can't pardon you. – Davy M Sep 2 at 20:56
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This would be most exceptional. There is no precedent, and the how matters would play out would depend in the nature of the elected person, the nature of the crime, the make-up of Congress and many other details:

For example, suppose that John Brown, instead of being executed was incarcerated, and then elected to the Presidency by a (much more radical) republican college of electors. He could justifiably claim that the election was a vindication of his radical abolitionist stand and that he should be released (although as he was convicted under Virginian law, he couldn't pardon himself)

A president-elect who is found guilty between election day and the inauguration may find themselves an embarrassment to their party. If you lose the support of your own party, you don't last long in a system in which you can be removed by a super-majority vote in the Senate, as Nixon found.

The situation in which a person, incarcerated for a crime with no political aspect, is elected president seems unbelievably far fetched. In such a hypothesis, it is pure speculation as to what would happen next.

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    We got so far as a previously sentenced person got one third of the vote for Congressional office. (If I recall correctly, conviction happened between winning the primary and running in the general, but I could have it backwards.) – Joshua Sep 2 at 15:27
  • There are most likely precedents, just not in the USA. – gerrit Sep 2 at 16:46

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