'Natural Born' Disputes in the 2016 Presidential Election

16 Pages Posted: 25 Aug 2016 Last revised: 14 Aug 2020

Date Written: August 23, 2016


The 2016 presidential election brought forth new disputes concerning the definition of a "natural born citizen." The most significant challenges surrounded the eligibility of Senator Ted Cruz, born in Canada to a Cuban father and an American mother. Administrative challenges and litigation in court revealed deficiencies in the procedures for handling such disputes. This paper exhaustively examines these challenges and identifies three significant complications arising out of these disputes.

First, agencies tasked with administering elections and reviewing challenges to candidate eligibility often construed their own jurisdiction broadly, but good reasons exist for construing such jurisdiction narrowly given ample political and legal opportunities to review candidates' qualifications. Second, while litigation in federal court usually led to swift dismissal on a procedural ground, challenges in state proceedings sometimes led to broad — and incorrect — pronouncements about the power to scrutinize the eligibility of presidential candidates. Third, decision makers repeatedly mused about how useful it would be if the Supreme Court offered a clear definition of a "natural born citizen." This suggests that executive and judicial actors are uncomfortable with non-federal judicial resolution of a constitutional claim like this one.

Finally, this Article offers a recommendation. After three consecutive presidential election cycles with time-consuming and costly litigation, it may well be time to amend the Constitution and abolish the natural born citizen requirement. Amending the Constitution is admittedly no simple task. But perhaps an uncontroversial amendment would find broad support in order to avoid delays and legal challenges seen in recent presidential primaries and elections.

Keywords: Election Law, President, Presidential Election, Natural Born Citizen, Qualifications, Ballots, Ted Cruz

JEL Classification: K00, K1, K10, L4, LK40

Suggested Citation

Muller, Derek T., 'Natural Born' Disputes in the 2016 Presidential Election (August 23, 2016). 85 Fordham Law Review 1097 (2016), Pepperdine University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2016/24, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2828329 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2828329

Derek T. Muller (Contact Author)

Notre Dame Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 780
Notre Dame, IN 46556-0780
United States

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