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Revoking Trump’s Ballot Eligibility: Can States Do This?

The state of American politics seems particularly turbulent at the moment;  the leading candidate in the 2024 election for the Republican party, Donald Trump, is facing a total of ninety one charges in 4 criminal cases. After encouraging supporters to overthrow an election, Trump is facing the repercussions of those actions in court and more recently, at the ballot box. The Colorado Supreme Court and Maine Secretary of State both concluded that Trump is ineligible from holding office under Section 3 of the fourteenth amendment due to his part in the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol. Having appealed, Trump will be taking the case to the US Supreme Court where it will be decided federally, for all states.

Colorado and Maine are not alone in their actions; thirty five states are deciding  the eligibility of Trump for the primary ballot. Of these, seventeen challenges remain unresolved. Arizona will be a case to watch as their lower court dismissal of the challenge has been appealed. The other eighteen include Oregon and Minnesota, who have both dismissed the case and have justified the primary as an ‘internal party election’ for the Republican nominee. Although Trump did not win in Colorado or Maine in the 2020 election, and although he may be able to win the primary without them, Trump carried thirteen of the states where challenges were filed.  he loss of his name on the ballot in these states would be hugely significant for his election.

So, how are states doing this? According to the limitations for presidential candidacy, as written in the Constitution, one must be thirty five years or older, a ‘natural born’ citizen, and have lived in the US for at least fourteen years, but there is nothing on the basis of character or criminal record. This leaves states to a specific section of the Constitution: Section 3 of the fourteenth amendment, which is being used against Trump because of how it  calls into question his eligibility under the January 6th insurrection. The section bars people from holding public office who have ‘engaged in insurrection.’ While some legal scholars argue that the line does not apply to the presidency and that January 6th did not constitute the kind of insurrection of which the article speaks (the Civil War), states have been relying on the line to remove Trump from the primary ballot.

There is further question of whether removal of a candidate from a ballot is truly in the states’ power, which Trump’s lawyers have been quick to oppose. In Trump’s appeal of the Colorado Supreme court decision, his lawyers contend that the Secretary of State does not have the power to remove Trump from the ballot, and as he is the leading choice for Republican nominee, the action is a threat to American democracy. California’s Governor Gavin Newsome and current President Joe Biden have called for the matter to be put into the hands of the people at the polls rather than by state officials. On the other hand, the Maine Secretary of StateShenna Bellows acknowledged in her decision to remove Trump from the ballot, ‘I am mindful that no Secretary of State has ever deprived a presidential candidate of ballot access based on Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment. I am also mindful, however, that no presidential candidate has ever before engaged in insurrection.’

The Supreme Court’s decision on the case will set fascinating legal precedent with long-lasting implications. The US could ultimately have a president elected by the people who is facing charges for his efforts to overturn a democratic election through insurrection during his last time in office. Alternatively, the court could decide that it is the right of the state to decide for the people – something the court has done in the past, most notably with the overturning of Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court has 3 Trump appointees - Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanagh, and Amy Coney Barret - which could help Trump, although in previous proceedings relating to his criminal activity, the courts have ruled in favor of the state. The court is also composed largely of conservative originalists, meaning they decide the Constitution exactly as it was written, and many legal scholars have argued that Colorado’s Supreme Court builds a firm case for originalism readings of Section 3 of the fourteenth amendment. The Supreme Court operating under Chief Justice John Roberts also has to consider that their series of rulings overturning and setting important political precedent in recent years has brought them under scrutiny; this case will be perhaps the most tumultuous.

Currently, Trump is set to appear on Colorado and Maine’s ballots as both states anticipate the outcome of the Supreme Court hearing set to happen in February, just in time for ‘Super Tuesday’ on 5th March when a series of states will vote in their primaries, including Colorado. The outcome of this decision raises many questions. If the defendant was anyone but Trump, would this conversation exist? Knowing his supporters were convinced to raid the Capitol after a fairly-decided election, what would happen if Trump was removed from the ballot altogether using unprecedented legal principles? Does the insurrection limitation apply to January 6th, and if so, will this be unfairly utilized to keep future candidates out of office? Who has the power to hold Trump accountable for his actions; will it be the courts, US Congress, or the people? It seems as though this is a lose-lose situation that will result  in political upheaval either way. The Supreme Court is left to decide not only the fate of American politics, but also world politics for years to come.


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