A last electoral hurdle for Obama

A Web-driven challenge to his legitimacy targets members of the Electoral College.

Alex Brandon/AP/FILE
President-elect Barack Obama spoke in Kailua, Hawaii, in August. Some are lobbying for the Electoral College to take one last look at Mr. Obama's citizenship, claiming he was born in Kenya, not Hawaii.

Barack Obama has one election still to win before he moves into the White House, and by all accounts he’s a shoo-in. The Electoral College – that curious body created by the Founders to put one extra check on the popular vote – meets Dec. 15 to elect the president.

But across the US, a small band of Americans convinced that Mr. Obama is not a natural-born citizen, as the Constitution requires of presidents, are lobbying Democratic electors to take one last look at the notion that Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii.

The idea that Democratic electors would deny Obama the presidency strains the bounds of credulity. But the lobbying campaign points to the endurance of conspiracy theories pertaining to US presidents – and revives longstanding questions about the Electoral College itself.

“This does point out the frailty of the Electoral College system,” says Michael Mezey, an expert on the election process at DePaul University in Chicago. “The fact that in most states electors could make the decision to vote for somebody else ... is a real vulnerability in the process. [Many Americans], in fact, tend to be amazed that these electors are real people.”

Here in North Carolina, the secretary of state’s office has fielded about 50 requests for names and contact numbers of electors – all public information. The last time so many people sought to contact electors was in 2000, amid a bid to urge electors to vote for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore, who had won the popular vote.

“Most of the world thinks this is settled except for a few conspiracy theorists,” says North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. “In the 2000 election ... Republican electors felt under siege, and I expect the Democrat electors may end up feeling the same way [this time].”

Wayne Abraham, a Democratic elector in Greensboro, N.C., says he’s received three letters – two signed, one not – and one phone call about Obama’s citizenship.

“I was surprised, but I’m not worried about it,” he says, dryly. “As I said to the lady on the phone, I figured that the Bush administration had ample opportunity to investigate Senator Obama, and if they had discovered he was not truly a citizen they ... would have let us know.”

A birth certificate from Hawaii

Many news organizations have debunked claims that Obama was born in Kenya to his 19-year-old American mother and his father, a Kenyan. The Obama campaign released a certificate of live birth from Hawaii in June, which would seem to have put the issue to rest. Critics, though, contend the document is a fake.

“It’s true that, if it’s not a totally impossible twist on actual facts that he’d been born in Kenya, [the Electoral vote] actually would have been quite tricky because of the statutory regime,” says Peter Spiro, an immigration law expert at Temple University in Philadelphia. “But it’s really a nonstarter because Obama was born in Hawaii.”

A disparate, Web-connected campaign appears to be driving the effort to contact electors ahead of the Dec. 15 meetings of the college in each state’s capital. It also includes a letter-writing effort to urge the US Supreme Court to intervene. One website, obamacrimes.com, has reportedly received 105 million hits in the past three months, speaking to the pervasiveness of the belief, perhaps fueled by Obama’s multiethnic background and globe-trotting childhood, that the president-elect was born abroad.

Legal challenges over Obama’s citizenship

Two pending lawsuits could yet get an audience before the Supreme Court prior to Dec. 15, and a movement is also afoot to sue secretaries of state over the certification issue. Some say the Founders intended the Electoral College to serve as the final certification board for candidates. The US has no other independent certification process, relying instead on vetting by courts, voters, and the press during the campaign.

“People are going after electors now because they can only vote for a qualified candidate, and [Obama] hasn’t shown he’s qualified,” says Philip Berg of Lafayette Hill, Pa., a Democrat and lawyer who has filed two lawsuits calling Obama’s citizenship into question. “I think we have enough trouble – we don’t need a fake president.”

Melanie Siewert, a stay-at-home mom in Kernersville, N.C., says her lobbying efforts mark the first time she’s been actively involved in the political process. The questions raised by lawyers like Mr. Berg, she says, are substantial enough to throw doubt on Obama’s eligibility.

“I’m not asking electors to overturn their vote, but really to, before we vote, to make absolutely sure,” says Ms. Siewert, who has contacted most of North Carolina’s 15 electors. “This is not being a sore loser or racist. This is just about ensuring that our leader is being truthful about who he is.”

Fueled by a historic presidential race that promised a dramatic shift in the direction of American power, the Obama citizenship flap, some experts say, shows that conspiracy theories still resonate with a subset of Americans. Over the years, the legitimacy of presidents from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln has been questioned, though none about their citizenship status.

“Human beings will always go for myth because it’s compelling, dramatic, and, if it were true, it would be able to change history,” says Perry Leavell, a presidential historian and folklore expert at Drew University in Madison, N.J. “You can go back into the history of the American presidency and find over and over again people ... who are prepared to believe the exact opposite of what all the data would say.”

Though many electors are bound by state law to cast their vote for the winning candidate, their constitutional role as federal agents means that any vote they cast on Dec. 15 will count. What’s more, their importance could come into sharper relief if new information about Obama’s citizenship status were to surface before Dec. 15, says James Ceaser, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

“The only time the electors’ role might change ... is if something occurred during the election which afterwards made things look really strange,” says Mr. Ceaser. “That’s why I believe personally that human discretion should be involved in every decision until the last second, that nothing should be automatic.”

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