Should Background Checks Have a Place in State Politics?

When you start marking your ballot on Election Day, do you ever look at a candidate’s name and wonder if that person has a checkered criminal history? For many voters, the answers would likely be a “no” — there is an unspoken assumption that they must have a reasonably clear background if someone has qualified to run for office. However, in reality, this turns out to not always be the case. A convicted felon who never disclosed her status even received votes in a municipal election in one state.

The incident occurred in the 2021 mayoral elections for the city of Atlanta. Only after the election concluded did an investigative team from a local news station uncover allegations of not only campaign finance violations but also an undisclosed criminal history. Reporters discovered that the candidate had previously accumulated five felony convictions in Texas before moving to Atlanta and running for mayor. 

Further investigations revealed that, although candidates must sign a statement denying any convictions for certain crimes, political candidates don’t need background checks to run for office. Simply signing an affidavit is enough to begin the process of reaching the ballot. While a state statute does require election superintendents to “determine if the candidate is qualified,” these officials do not have the legal authority to order a Georgia state background check on any candidate.

With previously omitted facts now in the open, the Georgia Secretary of State has opened an investigation to determine whether the candidate committed a crime by signing the affidavit that denied the presence of prior convictions, such as a “felony involving moral turpitude.” While the candidate in question did not come close to winning the election, finishing 9th out of 14 challengers, residents and experts questioned why the process lacked such a critical element. 

Because any change in election policy must come on a legislative level, this blind spot in the qualification procedure may likely remain for some time. One political science professor proposed that candidates may wish to conduct a criminal history check on themselves. They could then authorize the public release of the results as a matter of transparency and due diligence, similar to the long-standing traditions related to US presidential candidates and their tax returns.

While the situation may seem unusual, it could be more common than many voters know. There are no formalized procedures for conducting background checks on candidates at most electoral levels and across many states. Even at the presidential level, the Federal Election Commission does not currently require candidates to produce any background report. 

While that is a high-profile office often sought by those in the public eye for decades, mayors, school board seats, and other positions are all similarly vulnerable. Although there is no reason to disqualify someone from holding office merely for a criminal past, many voters may prefer to have all the facts about someone before they drop their next vote into a ballot box.

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Michael Klazema

About Michael Klazema The author

Michael Klazema is the lead author and editor for Dallas-based with a focus on human resource and employment screening developments

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