Must Obama Prove He’s a Natural-Born Citizen?

The flimsy rules on eligibility standards for presidential candidates.

Barack Obama

A federal judge in Pennsylvania this week threw out a lawsuit that challenged Barack Obama’s eligibility for the presidency by claiming he’s not a U.S. citizen. A California judge tossed out a similar lawsuit in September, after a member of the state’s American Independent Party claimed John McCain was not a “natural-born citizen.” Do presidential candidates have to prove their eligibility for office before they get on the ballot?

No. Ballot access rules vary by state, but in general, you don’t have to prove eligibility unless someone challenges it. Article II of the U.S. Constitution requires that a presidential candidate be a “natural born citizen”—in other words, a citizen born in this country or, according to traditional interpretation, born to U.S. citizens overseas (as opposed to a naturalized citizen born overseas). * You also have to be at least 35 and have lived in the U.S. for at least 14 years. But none of the 50 states asks for birth certificates or long-term residency documents to prove that a candidate qualifies for a spot on the ballot. (Obama released a copy of his birth certificate, anyway.)

Instead, they take the major parties’ word for it. In presidential primary elections, most states put “generally recognized candidates” on the ballot automatically. California, for example, recognizes candidates who qualify for federal matching funds, appear in public-opinion polls, “campaign actively” in California, and appear on other states’ ballots. Presidential electors usually do have to affirm their eligibility—by demonstrating that they are over 18, registered voters, and state residents. The candidates themselves face no such requirements.

Third-party candidates, however, do have to show some ID. In Maryland, anyone who wants to get on the presidential primary ballot but isn’t “generally recognized” (as vaguely defined by the state) has to sign a Certificate of Candidacy affirming, “I meet the qualification for the above mentioned office as set forth in applicable law.” Illinois, too, requires independent candidates to affirm that they are “legally qualified … to hold such office.” Violation is considered perjury. (If you really want to burnish your cred, Illinois has an optional loyalty oath.)

Eligibility requirements are different for state and local offices. Candidates for the House of Representatives must be at least 25 years old. Senators have to be 30. Residency requirements vary: In Virginia, congressmen have to live in their district; in California, they don’t. Most states require candidates to affirm that they meet the requirements. Virginia, for example, asks House candidates to swear that they’re 25, they live in their district, they’ve never been convicted of a felony, and they’ve been a U.S. citizen for at least seven years.

How do you challenge a candidate’s eligibility for president or any other office? You have two options: report them to your secretary of state or take them to court. Some Secretary of State offices have investigation units that handle fraud, and investigations can lead to felony charges. Taking candidates to court is trickier. For one thing, you need “standing”—proof that the candidate’s actions harm you. A federal judge ruled recently that ordinary citizens don’t qualify for standing, and Congress would have to pass a law to change that. Political parties, on the other hand, might have a better chance in court, since they would clearly get hurt if an ineligible opponent won.

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Explainer thanks Susan Conner of the Madera County Clerk’s Office, Paul S. Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center, and Lorraine Thompson of the Virginia State Board of Elections.

Correction, Oct. 30, 2008: This article originally defined a “natural born citizen” as a citizen born in the United States. (Return to the corrected sentence.)