The Federal Election Commission ruled Friday that a Guyana-born American citizen could file papers and raise money to run for president of the United States. But the agency also told the prospective candidate, Abdul Hassan, that his campaign may not receive federal matching funds because he was not born in America.
The FEC’s unanimous vote allows Hassan — who born in the South American country in 1974 — to be a candidate, solicit funds and requires him to file disclosure reports for a presidential bid. However, the agency’s decision stopped short of addressing the constitutional issue of whether someone born outside the United States can be president.
Instead, the agency told Hassan he may not receive any presidential primary matching funds by quoting the Constitution, stating “[n]o 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.”
Hassan’s request appeared to put the FEC in the rare role of deciding a large constitutional issue that has only a few intersections with campaign finance law. The two commonly held constitutional requirements to run for president are that the candidate be 35 years of age or older and be a “natural born citizen.”
But FEC commissioners said repeatedly that their decision to define Hassan as a candidate had nothing to do with his birth country. They said that current federal election law allows for someone to be a candidate, regardless of whether they can legally hold the office they seek and that the FEC is not charged with deciding presidential criteria including one’s natural-born citizenship.
“This does not mean that he can go and say ‘look the FEC has said that I am a candidate, give me money, I’m official,’” said Republican Commissioner Donald McGahn. “That is not what we do here; we don’t certify you as a candidate. That’s what the states do.”
During Thursday’s meeting, commissioners said they had trepidation about voting for Hassan’s candidacy because of how it might be perceived.
“By saying that it is okay — it does give the impression that we don’t see a problem,” said Democratic Commissioner Steven Walther. “I think that we really need to be cognizant of how this could be misconstrued.”
The FEC’s decision to allow Hassan to go through the initial steps to run for president took place outside of its normal publicly attended open meetings and instead was approved by a tally vote as commissioners tried to reach a consensus.
One of the final sections added to approved opinion states: “Notwithstanding this conclusion, the Commission expresses no opinion on Mr. Hassan’s potential liability arising out of his proposed activities under any other Federal or State law, including any laws concerning fraudulent misrepresentation. Any such issues are outside the Commission’s jurisdiction.”
“For us this is really all about what we are empowered to decide and what we are not empowered to decide,” said Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub. “Nobody is saying that it is fine and nobody is saying it’s okay for this guy to be going out and raising funds.’”
Shortly after Hassan made the request, the FEC signaled that it would decide the technicalities of filing requirements while leaving the broader issue of who can run for president to the judicial branch. In an email to Hassan on July 18, the FEC stated that he understood “that although the Commission can respond to the questions asked in [his] advisory opinion, the Commission cannot make any determination as to whether [Hassan] can, as a naturalized citizen, serve as President.”
The issue was made more contentious by comments and Internet postings by citizens, Tea Party advocates and “birthers,” who continue to press long-refuted claims that President Barack Obama was not born in America. About a dozen of these individuals wrote letters to the FEC stating that Hassan should not be allowed to run for president.
In the face of this opposition, Hassan said before the vote that he believed that the FEC was making the decision in good faith based on the facts. But he added that it would be hard for commissioners not to be “influenced by the political sensitivity of the issue.”
Hassan told Roll Call that his candidacy is not a stunt but rather an effort by a “political junkie” with various legislative interests. “I follow politics closely, but I have never held elected office,” he said. “I would admit that I am not well-known, and I would admit that my chances of winning are not as good as other candidates. That’s obvious.”