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US Presidential Elections and the ‘Natural-Born Citizen’ Requirement

Dr Cherian Samuel is a Research Fellow (SS) at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 31, 2024

    In a recent podcast interview, conservative commentator Ann Coulter, known for her controversial opinions, expressed that she would not have voted for Vivek Ramaswamy, a former Republican presidential candidate, due to his Indian heritage, despite largely agreeing with his policy positions.1 She stated that her personal preference was for candidates to be at least third-generation Americans to get her vote.

    Coulter’s remarks were widely condemned as "sugar-coated racism", with others viewing them as outright racist, particularly given Coulter's history of making similar statements against other Indian-American candidates, such as Nikki Haley. Coulter's remarks included telling Haley “to go back to her country” and describing an exchange between Haley and Ramaswamy during the primary debates as “Hindu business”.2  

    Such statements have become normalised within the charged political discourse in the United States. These notwithstanding, the US Constitution itself could be said to discriminate against citizens on the basis of national origin, when it comes to standing for the US presidency.

    Thus, while race has been a factor in US presidential elections, a concerning trend is the use of race to undermine the campaigns of minority presidential candidates and portray them as ‘the other’. This issue is rooted in the vague qualifications for the presidency outlined in the US Constitution.

    The most prominent example of this phenomenon is the ‘birther’ campaign that emerged during Barack Obama's presidential campaign, where doubts were raised about his eligibility to run for the office of President due to his alleged failure to meet the requirement of being a ‘natural-born citizen’ of the United States. Despite Obama producing a birth certificate from the state of Hawaii, rumours persisted about his citizenship being traced to Kenya and Indonesia.

    Even in the current elections, Republican candidate Trump has raised similar allegations against Indian American Nikki Haely, reposting a report that alleged that she was ineligible since her parents were not yet US citizens at the time of her birth.3 These arguments were also used by former Trump lawyer, Prof. John Eastman, regarding Kamala Harris when she was selected as Joe Biden's running mate in 2020.4

    Paragraph 5 of Article 2, Section 1 of the United States Constitution lays down the necessary qualifications for a candidate to the US Presidency as follows:

    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.5

    The ‘natural-born citizen’ clause has come in the way of many a suitable candidate attempting to run for the office of the President. The general belief is that this clause was inserted as a result of strong rumours, among others, that some members of the Constitutional Convention were concocting a monarchical form of government and planning to invite Prince Frederick Augustus, the second son of George III, to accept an American crown.6 Though the term “natural born” was not defined in the Constitution, it was understood to be on the basis of the then prevalent British common law which held that a person born on British soil, “even of alien parents” was a British subject.7  

    When it comes to the presidential qualifications, there have been differing interpretations as to what the term ‘natural-born’ citizens actually means, and whether children born in the United States to ‘alien’ parents could be considered as ‘natural-born citizens’.8 Conversely, the issue has also arisen regarding the eligibility of children born abroad to American citizens, as exemplified by the then candidate Trump raising questions over the eligibility of Senator Ted Cruz, his rival to run for president in 2016, since he was born in Canada to an American mother and Cuban father.9 The issue has been raised in just about every presidential election in the recent past, as a dog whistle to convey that the children of minority immigrants were not truly American.

    Whilst those requirements might have been relevant at the birth of the republic, when there were fears of the foreign hand, the natural-born requirement would be seen to have lost its relevance since, especially since it deprives over an estimated hundred million citizens from standing for this office. Many attempts have been made to nullify this clause subsequently, especially when it comes in the way of a popular candidate but the lengthy procedure for a constitutional amendment has brought these campaigns to a grinding halt.

    Congressional records show that between 1864 and 2004, no less than 26 attempts have been made.10 Notable attempts were made in the 1970s in order to pave the way for Henry Kissinger to run for President,11 and in the noughties to enable California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to stand for president.12 As per the Equal Opportunity to Govern Amendment initiated by Sen. Orin Hatch, the Constitution would be amended to allow a naturalised citizen who had been so for a period of 20 years to be eligible for the White House.13  However, public polls showed very little support for this amendment, and it died a natural death at the end of the 108th session of Congress.

    Whilst the controversy surrounding Ann Coulter's comments about Indian-American candidates highlights the persistent use of race and citizenship status to undermine the presidential ambitions of minority candidates in the United States, the ‘natural-born citizen’ requirement in the US Constitution, which was likely intended to prevent foreign influence, has persisted as a tool to question the legitimacy and American identity of such candidates.

    Despite the 14th Amendment's clear definition of citizenship, the vague wording of the 'natural-born citizen' clause has led to various interpretations and attempts to challenge the eligibility of candidates, and to create a sense of perceiving candidates from minority communities as  not being American enough.  For a country that prides itself as being a nation of immigrants, this clause is an anomaly particularly since it deprives a sizeable portion of the population from seeking the highest office in the land. By bringing about greater clarity on this requirement through the Congress or at the level of the Supreme Court, the US can take a step towards a more inclusive and representative democratic process that truly reflects the diversity of its citizenry.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.