Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has faced recent challenges as states begin to question his ballot eligibility according to an obscure clause in the United States Constitution. In late December, Maine and Colorado declared the leading Republican candidate for the 2024 presidential election ineligible to run for president. However, the two states have temporarily reinstated Trump on the primary ballot, contingent on the Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling on the case in February.
The discussion about Trump’s eligibility surrounds Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The clause states that any person who has taken an oath to support the Constitution and then “engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same” may not hold future office. In the former president’s case, the question arises about whether his actions surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the Capitol Building reflect a betrayal of the Constitutional oath he took as president. The other question lies in interpreting the clause’s language and if its scope extends to the president position. Originally created to prevent former Confederates from holding office after the Civil War, the clause has only been invoked once since this era, creating fear about the possible precedent set for future elections, if it were applied against Trump.
Late last year, Colorado was the first state to remove Trump from the primary ballot. In a 4-3 decision, the Colorado Supreme Court reasoned that Trump did incite the Jan. 6 insurrection by encouraging supporters at his rally to fight at the Capitol Building and would therefore be ineligible for presidency according to the insurrection clause. Making similar arguments, Maine voters pressured their Secretary of State, Shenna Bellows, to decide on the issue before the state’s upcoming presidential primary race in March. In a decision released in late December, Bellows used similar reasoning to the Colorado Supreme Court, concluding that the Jan. 6 events “occurred at the behest of, and with the knowledge and support of, the outgoing President. The U.S. Constitution does not tolerate an assault on the foundations of our government, and Section 336 requires me to act in response.”
However, officially removing Trump from the ballots in Maine and Colorado has been put on hold now that the United States Supreme Court is set to rule on the issue in February. Trump’s ballot eligibility rests on the Supreme Court’s decisions on whether the clause applies to the president position, whether Trump himself engaged in insurrection, and whether political parties are guaranteed the right to choose their primary candidates. If the Supreme Court deems Trump ineligible for the presidency, his name will be removed from the primary ballots or, if the ballots were printed before the decision, any votes for Trump will be discarded. This would be the first time this clause is used to exclude a candidate from the primary ballot. It is also important that the Supreme Court makes the decision quickly so that voters can go to the polls informed of whether or not their vote for Trump is valid.
Maine and Colorado’s decisions to eliminate the leading Republican candidate from the presidential race have understandably faced fierce criticism. Trump’s lawyers argue that the language of the Constitutional clause (“officer under the United States”) does not include the president, and therefore Trump would be unaffected. Another argument is that Trump’s actions on Jan. 6, 2021 do not constitute inciting an insurrection but rather represent exercising free speech. Trump appealed both states’ decision, sending the Colorado case to the United States Supreme Court and the Maine case to the state’s courts. While Trump asked the Supreme Court to rule on the issue, he also warned that “our country’s in big, big trouble” if they do not overturn the Colorado decision.
Concerns have been raised about the possible implications of upholding the Colorado decision. Republican voters would likely feel unfairly disenfranchised, further contributing to the country’s intense polarization. The Republican party’s lawyers say that removing Trump from the ballot represents an “unprecedented usurpation of the rights of the people to choose their elected officials.” Some Americans have already expressed their disagreement through political violence. Bellows and Colorado justices reported receiving death threats and home swatting attempts during the past few weeks.
Another major concern is about the danger of invoking the insurrection clause, which has been untouched for centuries. If Trump is ultimately disqualified, it sets the precedent that voters can sue political candidates on potentially vague allegations of insurrection. Utilizing the clause could become a commonplace partisan tactic to impede on opposing political campaigns.
Dozens of other states, including Illinois and Massachusetts, have also received lawsuits to remove Trump but believe they do not have the authority to determine a party’s primary candidates. As more states are pressured to determine Trump’s ballot eligibility for the upcoming presidential primaries, the country anxiously anticipates the Supreme Court’s decision.
Marina Varriano is from Westchester, NY, studying Public Policy and Music