Democracy Soup

Making sense out of the world of politics

Should your place of birth determine whether you can be president of the United States?

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Originally published on on Thu, 02/28/2008 – 10:50am

“No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.”

Those of us who still remember what we learned in school know that to be president, you have to be at least 35 years old. And some of us even recall that a person must have been a resident within the United States for 14 years.

But the Constitution requires a “natural born Citizen” or “a Citizen of the United States” to be president or vice president.

Those who were not born in the United States and not to U.S. citizens are generally declared to be ineligible. Prominent people on this list include former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, and even Jerry Springer, who contemplated a run for the U.S. Senate with the notion that he wouldn’t want to move up after reaching the Senate.

There is the story of Bill Richardson’s father, who sent Bill’s mother into the United States so Bill would be born in the United States.

But what about John McCain? McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936, but does that make him a “natural born Citizen”?

As you can see in today’s The New York Times, McCain isn’t the first one to have this issue.

Lowell P. Weicker Jr. ran for president in 1980, but was born to American parents in Paris, France. George Romney (yes, Mitt’s father) was born to American parents in Mexico and ran in 1968. Barry Goldwater was born in the Arizona territory in 1909, before it became a state, to parents who presumably were American citizens.

The most amusing example, and unlike the others, he did become president, is Chester A. Arthur, who is listed as being born in Vermont, but rumors suggested it was Canada. Even though he was never elected president, Arthur was elected vice president, and under the Constitution, must meet the same qualifications as president.

From Wikipedia:

“Most official references list him as having been born in Fairfield in Franklin County, Vermont on October 5, 1829. But Arthur sometimes claimed to have born in 1830, the date that is on his grave inscription and occurs in some reference works. His father had initially migrated to Dunham, Québec, Canada, where he and his wife at one point owned a farm about 80 miles (129 km) north of the U.S. border. There has long been speculation that the future president was actually born in Canada and that the family moved to Fairfield later.”

Before anyone thinks this is just about McCain, consider this: Barack Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961. If he had been born three years earlier, he would have the same issues as Barry Goldwater.

The confusion over who can qualify for president isn’t limited to place of birth. Even a water cooler discussion over whether Bill Clinton or George W. Bush could serve as vice president again can get heated.

The 22nd Amendment: “Section 1. No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once.”

The key word is elected. Clinton or Bush could theoretically be VP, if the president died or became incapacitated, the VP could become president, but not run for re-election. Others disagree with this interpretation.

There was a serious question of Dick Cheney’s Constitutional viability in 2000. Cheney was living in Texas when Bush selected him as his VP nominee. Under the Constitution, two people from the same state can’t serve as president and vice president. The Cheneys “magically moved” to Wyoming, but there were underlying unanswered questions.

Does a primary domicile count as being from a state? In terms of eligibility, Alan Keyes ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004 against Barack Obama, and claimed that a rented apartment in Calumet City, Illinois, established his residence in that state, even though he owned a home in Maryland. Senate members must live in the state they represent.

Texas and Wyoming both don’t charge a state income tax, but perhaps there were other financial reasons why Texas was advantageous. If Cheney took advantage of those, he would be a “resident of Texas” and therefore Constitutionally ineligible to hold his current post (as would Bush).

Children born to American citizens are considered U.S. citizens, regardless of where they are born. Children born in the United States to those who aren’t American citizens are considered U.S. citizens. Right now, those in the first group may not be eligible to be president; those in the second group definitely are eligible. Sounds like eligibility needs to be clarified.

There is no consensus that John McCain isn’t eligible, but there is no consensus that he is.

Again, from Wikipedia:

All persons born in the United States, except those not subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S. government (such as children of foreign diplomats) are citizens by birth under the Fourteenth Amendment. There is some debate over whether other persons with citizenship can also be considered citizens by birth, or whether they should all be considered to be “naturalized”. Current US statutes define certain individuals born overseas as “citizens at birth,” as opposed to citizens by birth.

So is McCain a “citizen of birth” or a “citizen at birth”?

It’s perfectly appropriate to make the rules difficult to become president, but those rules should be clear-cut so that anyone who wants to grow up to be president of the United States should know from the start whether they have that chance.


Written by democracysoup

February 28, 2008 at 10:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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