The Arizona Birther Bill

Thursday night, the Arizona legislature passed House Bill 2177, which the Arizona Republic describes as requiring “presidential and vice presidential candidates to provide the Arizona secretary of state with documents proving they are natural-born citizens.”  Those documents can include “either a long-form birth certificate or two or more other permitted documents, including an early baptismal certificate, circumcision certificate, hospital birth record, postpartum medical record signed by the person who delivered the child or an early census record.”  Failure to provide these documents would prevent the candidate from appearing on Arizona ballots.  The bill will go into effect if Arizona Governor Jan Brewer does not veto it.

As the Republic notes, this bill has “come before the Legislature several times in the past two years in various forms and has been proposed so far unsuccessfully in several other states in recent years.”  The motivating force behind this legislation is the “birther” controversy – the notion that Barack Obama has not provided the legally required proof of citizenship to serve as President of the United States. 

This stems from various legal maneuvers the President has employed to restrict access to his “long-form birth certificate” from the state of Hawaii.  These days, the most prominent questioner of the birth certificate would have to be Donald Trump, who has gone as far as dispatching some kind of “investigative team” to Hawaii to look into the matter.  As far as I know, their exploits are not being filmed for a reality TV series, which seems like a terrible waste of good material.

It’s hard to weigh in on any aspect of the “birther” controversy without venturing some kind of opinion on the core issue, so let me pause to tick off the bullet points: The notion that Obama wasn’t born in America is rather silly.  There’s probably something vaguely embarrassing on the documents he wants to keep private.  It’s annoying that powerful people have ways around legal standards that rigidly apply to the rest of us, such as the precise documentation required for various licenses and certifications.  It’s also annoying that some aspects of the federal government’s operation have confusing or ambiguous rules which are open to interpretation.  Some people find themselves strongly disagreeing with the official interpretation.  These are not new, or surprising, annoyances.

Having said that, what’s objectively horrible about the Arizona law?  Every state determines its own requirements for appearing on the ballot, so Arizona is not setting a unique precedent that threatens to shatter the Republic.  The listed requirements don’t seem unreasonable.  They don’t impose an awful burden that could be manipulated to control the electoral process in some sinister way.  The Republic reports that Arizona House Speaker Kirk Adams, a Republican, “said he voted for the bill only because the final version, he believes, is constitutional and the bill requires all candidates – including those for local office – to show that they meet the individual requirements of their office.”

Perhaps the Arizona bill is unnecessary or redundant.  If someone wants to begin a movement to purge all unnecessary, redundant laws from state and federal governments, starting with this one, count me in.  The only reason anyone is getting all worked up about this particular law is the context.

Granted, the context is probably the only reason the bill exists, and its detractors feel the context makes Arizona look bad by passing it.  It’s an interesting example of the way presumed motivations, more than practical results, change the way many people view the actions of government.  Unwise or destructive policies are often passed, or allowed to continue, because of the alleged benevolence of their authors.  In this case, an apparently reasonable bill about the ordinarily boring subject of candidate qualifications becomes not just a good or bad idea, but a crusade or an outrage, based on circumstances that have little to do with the precise wording of the bill itself.

It’s too bad we can’t be more dispassionate when it comes to judging the deeds of our powerful state and federal governments.  We never will be.  That’s one of the arguments against powerful governments.