Eligibility & Election of the President

Formal Presidential Requirements

There are three formal requirements which one must fulfill in order to hold the office of president of the United States. He or she must be a natural-born citizen of the United States, at least 35 years old, and have been resident in the United States for at least fourteen years prior to the election. 

The age requirement is popularly understood as an attempt to ensure a candidate for president has the maturity and experience necessary to fulfill the duties of the office. The requirement that a president be a natural born citizen is meant to ensure that the president is loyal to the United States, and the United States alone. Loyalty to the United States on the part of government officials was a priority of the framers, as Article 1, Section 9, Clause 7 also prevents any official of the United States from accepting a title of nobility from a foreign country. Finally, the 14-year residency requirement was instituted to reinforce the loyalty of the president to the United States, as well as to ensure that the president would be attuned to the current issues facing the country.

The 22nd Amendment places a further limitation on who may hold the office of president, by limiting a president only two full terms in office, or a total of no more than ten years should he or she assume office without being elected. Therefore, if any candidate would exceed either of these limitations, they are ineligible for election. 

Choosing a President: The Informal Requirements

The formal qualifications for office are only the basic requirements for being president. Far more important are the informal factors that are used when evaluating a candidate for the presidency, for choosing a president is the result of a lengthy and complex selection process. Whoever eventually becomes the president is often one from a number of acceptable candidates. In the nomination and election process, many questions arise as to the candidates’ character, experience, and a range of other issues. Most of these qualities are not requirements enumerated in the Constitution. Technically, then, these qualities would not legally disqualify someone for office. 

While there are countless criteria used by voters, the media, and political parties which often change from election to election depending on the issues facing the country, there are a few worth focusing on. Often, a premium is placed on executive experience. As a result, the vice president and governors are often among the first considered for a party’s nomination.

Some presidential candidates are nominated directly from the Senate. These candidates are frequently strong in the area of foreign policy. Occasionally presidential candidates have been nominated from the House of Representatives, but this occurs with less and less frequency over time. Finally, presidential campaigns have frequently attempted to compensate in an area of perceived weakness by choosing a vice presidential candidate strong in that area.  Other factors as simple as a candidate’s speaking ability, family life, and personal background all also contribute to this set of informal qualifications for the office of president. 

Natural Born Citizenry

In Athens, though it was considered to be one of the most liberal democracies of the ancient world, a citizen had to be the offspring of two Athenian citizens in order to participate in the political councils. Indeed, a man could be considered a resident alien, politically, even if his lineage could be traced in Athens for generations. Common law in Europe often expanded political rights beyond what they had been in the ancient world; though traditionally, European countries placed great emphasis on the necessity of being native-born. People who had immigrated from another country would generally not qualify for full citizenship rights, because they would not be deemed sufficiently loyal to their adopted fatherland.

For many of the Founders, it was almost a foregone conclusion that George Washington would be the first president. Consequently, the debates surrounding the executive office looked beyond the immediate future; in other words, the presidency needed to be designed for those who would follow Washington. During the Constitutional Convention, it was generally agreed that American policies would be more liberal than their European forebears. Gouverneur Morris emphasized “the privileges which emigrants would enjoy among us, . . . observing that they exceeded the privileges allowed to foreigners in any part of the world.” Nonetheless, some preference for natural born citizens and lengthy residencies in the United States survived. Morris expressed some suspicion for “those citizens of the world . . . he did not wish to see any of them in our public councils. He would not trust them. The men who can shake off their attachments to their own country can never love any other.” James Wilson, who was himself an immigrant from Scotland, expressed some chagrin at “his being incapacitated from holding a place under the very Constitution which he had shared in the trust of making. . . . To be appointed to a place may be matter of indifference. To be incapable of being appointed is a circumstance grating and mortifying.” However, the greater number of delegates wanted to restrict the most powerful office in the United States, the presidency, to “a natural born Citizen” (Art. II, Sec. 1). George Mason pointed out that were it not for the circumstance that many foreigners “had acquired great credit during the revolution,” he would be in favor of restricting even “the Senate to natives” (Aug. 9). It remained the case that the United States Constitution would give more liberal privileges to recent immigrants than anywhere in the Old World.