The opening of 2011 state legislative sessions has been accompanied by a spate of birther-related bills, the clearest indication yet that the controversy surrounding President Barack Obama’s place of birth will continue to simmer throughout his reelection campaign.
Lawmakers in at least 10 states have introduced bills requiring presidential candidates to provide some form of proof that they are natural-born citizens, a ballot qualification rule designed to address widespread rumors on the right that Obama was not born in the United States.
The notion that Obama does not meet constitutional qualifications to be president has dogged him since the early stages of the 2008 race, despite his campaign’s posting online his certificate of live birth in the state of Hawaii.
The birther controversy resurfaced in recent weeks when newly elected Hawaii Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a friend of Obama’s parents, promised to investigate the issue and finally put to rest rumors that he was born in Kenya or Indonesia. Abercrombie later backtracked, citing the state’s privacy laws.
So far, the conservative conspiracy theorists who have pushed national media campaigns and numerous legal challenges questioning the president’s eligibility have met little success.
At the state level, however, the issue continues to fester. This year’s bills, if passed, would create a requirement for presidential campaigns to prove candidates’ place of birth, a proviso that sponsors say would finally clear up the matter.
Election law attorneys say that if the bills are passed, states may be able to kick presidential candidates off the ballot for not complying – though a legal challenge would be very likely.
“The Constitution gives state legislatures plenary power to set the rules for choosing presidential electors. A state legislature, in theory, as Bush v. Gore acknowledges, could even take away the popular vote for the president and decide on the choice itself,” said Rick Hasen, a law professor and author of the respected Election Law blog.
Cleta Mitchell, a conservative election lawyer, made similar comments, arguing that “states have had latitude historically to require filing fees, signatures on petitions and other ministerial procedures – and providing a birth certificate verifying a person’s constitutional qualifications of age and citizenship seems perfectly reasonable.”
The bills vary in terms of how election officials would sign off on the ballot eligibility of presidential candidates, a process that would be triggered by a presidential campaign’s application to get on the primary ballot. Some measures, such as one in Connecticut, would require the secretary of state to view the original birth certificate, while others would require an affidavit providing documentation of a candidate’s name and place of birth.
“We don’t think the president was vetted, and it’s just that simple,” Texas GOP state Rep. Leo Berman said, adding that he doesn’t know whether Obama is “a citizen or not” but that he believes the question has not been fully examined.
“I read different things that say he was born in Hawaii, and then I read the governor can’t find anything that says he was born in Hawaii,” Berman added. “Why the president won’t show a birth certificate is beyond me.”
Berman said that he’s received “the foulest e-mails I have ever seen in my life” since introducing the bill, but contended he has a significant amount of support – if not yet a large number of co-sponsors – within the Texas Legislature.
“My colleagues love it,” he said, adding that his bill will “pass overwhelmingly in the House.” But Berman predicted that Democrats in the state Senate would block the bill from getting the two-thirds majority it needs to pass.
In Oklahoma, Ralph Shortey is one of three Republican state senators who have introduced bills seeking proof of birth from presidential candidates, and, like Berman, said he doesn’t know if the president was born in the country.
“I don’t know one way or the other because I’ve not seen evidence one way or the other,” Shortey said, contending that the bill isn’t necessarily about Obama. “To be honest, I don’t care [if the president is a citizen]. He’s our president, and we elected him, whether he’s qualified or not.”
The Oklahoman said his bill is not so much about the birther argument as it is about the questions that prompted the theory.
“In Oklahoma, we can guarantee at every elected level that the candidate is qualified, except for president,” he said. “We need to ensure that the people on [the] ballot are legitimate candidates. … If 10 states are taking on this issue, it seems to me that it’s a serious enough issue to have called attention to itself.”
Missouri GOP state Rep. Lyle Rowland framed his own bill as a check against illegal immigration.
“We have problems with illegal immigrants. And if something were to happen where one of them became popular with the people, we need documents proving if they are a citizen,” said Rowland, who believes Obama is a “natural citizen of the United States.”
Hawaii Democrats are working on birther-influenced legislation of their own, designed, at least, to produce some revenue for the state’s trouble with the birthers. A new bill would allow the state’s Department of Health to provide copies of some of the president’s birth records – which the state had stopped doing during the height of birther activity – in return for a $100 fee.
Because many states where the bills have been proposed are only beginning their sessions, the prospects for passage are unclear.
Arizona’s seems the most likely to pick up momentum, as a similar bill was approved last year by its House before failing in the Senate. Both chambers were, and remain, under GOP control. The bill already has enough co-sponsors to pass the House again, and the support of the Republican majority leader in the Senate makes it quite likely that the measure will at least be brought to the floor.
Arizona GOP Gov. Jan Brewer did not take a position on the bill last year and hasn’t done so this year either. Republican state Rep. Judy Burges, who sponsored the bill both times, did not respond to requests for comment.
The bills in each state have been attacked by Democrats, who dismiss the birther movement as a collection of Obama-obsessed wing nuts.
Bill sponsors interviewed by POLITICO said they had not communicated with each other or any national group, though some said they were influenced by news reports on bills in other states.
“I read about it and thought, ‘Why shouldn’t we do this? This sounds like a good idea,'” said Connecticut GOP state Sen. Michael McLachlan.
McLachlan conceded that his bill doesn’t stand much chance of passing the state’s Democratic-controlled Legislature, but said he hasn’t been deterred by opposition.
“The issue just doesn’t want to go away,” he said. “Some people are insistent that President Obama isn’t qualified to run because he wasn’t born in the United States. Why don’t we just put the whole issue to rest?”