A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

John McCain’s Presidential Eligibility


Q: How can Panamanian-born McCain be elected president?

A: Though born abroad, he is considered a natural-born U.S. citizen.

FULL QUESTION:

I understand John McCain was born in Panama. Doesn’t that make him ineligible to be president? I thought the Constitution said you had to have been born in a state.

FULL ANSWER:

John McCain’s father was an admiral in the U.S. Navy who was stationed in Panama in 1936, when McCain was born. This has led to speculation as to whether McCain is a U.S. citizen and whether he can be elected president, a question that was raised during McCain’s run for the Republican nomination in 2000 as well.

Section 1, Article II of the U.S. Constitution states:

Article II: “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.”

But McCain is a natural-born citizen, even though he was not born within this country’s borders, since his parents were citizens at the time of his birth. As a congressional act stated in 1790:

Congress: “And the children of citizens of the United States, that may be born beyond sea, or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural born citizens.”

Another congressional act in 1795 issued a similar assurance, though it changed the language from “natural born citizen” to “citizen.”

But the State Department clarifies the issue, saying that the 1790 language is honored under section 301(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

This is not the first time the question has been broached in a presidential election. Fellow Arizonian Barry Goldwater was born in the Arizona territory before it was a state. And Mitt Romney’s father, George, ran for president in 1968, though he was born in Mexico. Like McCain, both were born to U.S. citizens and, therefore, considered to be American citizens.

However, both of those candidates were unsuccessful in their bids – and so a smidgen of uncertainty remains. If McCain wins the presidency, the constitutionality of these congressional statutes could be challenged in the courts. Members of Congress have expressed this fear and proposed a more explicit law, or even a Constitutional amendment. Neither has been adopted.

-Justin Bank

Update, June 16: This article originally didn’t note the distinction in language between the 1790 and 1795 congressional acts.

Sources

Rudin, Ken. “Citizen McCain’s Panama Problem.” Washington Post, 9 July 1998.

An Act to Establish a Uniform Rule of Naturalization.” 1st U.S. Congress, 2nd Session, 26 Mar. 1790.

An Act to Establish a Uniform Rule of Naturalization; and to repeal the act heretofore passed on that subject.” 3rd U.S. Congress, 2nd Session, 29 June 1795.

Olson, Elizabeth. “U.S. Congress moves to clarify the rules : Just how ‘American’ must a president be?” International Herald Tribune, 2 June 2004.