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What it means for Kamala Harris to be a Vice Presidential candidate

With presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden selecting Senator Kamala Harris (D-Cali.) as his running mate for Vice President, the 2020 election is making history for having the first Black and South Asian woman featured on the ballot.

But for all the special attention Kamala Harris is receiving on all political sides, there’s also a fair share of controversy. Let’s investigate why Harris’ selection to be Biden’s Vice President is so significant, and just why people are making such a big deal out of it.

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She’s breaking long-standing trends

As the first Black and Asian woman to be on the election ticket, Kamala Harris disrupts a long precedent when it comes to people who tend to be considered for executive offices.

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Upon being named Joe Biden’s vice-presidential pick, Kamala Harris became the first Black woman on a major party’s presidential ticket. She also became the first Indian-American, South Asian and Asian-American person to be chosen — historic firsts in their own right that many Asian-Americans celebrated.⁣ ⁣ In interviews, Indian-American political leaders and community advocates called Biden’s choice of Harris — the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father — a refutation of President Trump’s demonization of immigrants and a powerful statement on American possibility.⁣ ⁣ “Spending time in India, growing up where nobody in our neighborhood really understood us — or maybe they kind of noticed my mother’s accent, or didn’t take her as seriously — those are experiences that Kamala Harris understands,” said Neil Makhija, the executive director of the Indian American Impact Fund. “I think we’re feeling seen for the first time.”⁣ ⁣ Tap the link in our bio to read more reflections from Asian-American political leaders and community advocates. Photo by @travisdovephoto taken at a town hall meeting in North Charleston, South Carolina in 2019.

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Most presidential candidates and their Vice Presidential picks are not exactly the most diverse. The best exception that proves this is Barack Obama being the first Black president in the United States’ 200-year history.

Harris’ selection as Biden’s Vice President could potentially bring diversity to the White House if he wins in November. Beyond being a person of color, she’s also much younger than Biden. Harris is 55 years old, while Biden is 77.

Some say her being younger will help Biden’s camp bridge the gap between America’s youth and older folk. This is especially key not just when it comes to young voters but issues the youth face as well.

Harris also isn’t the first woman to run for Vice President. Sarah Palin ran for the office in 2008, as well as Geraldine Ferarro in 1984.

Not only that, Kamala Harris isn’t even the first woman of color to run for an executive office, and the list of former candidates stretches back even to before women had the right to vote.

What makes her pick historic, however, is the fact that she is the first woman who is both Black and Asian in a major party that will be presumably nominated for Vice President.

Her run isn’t without controversy

While Kamala Harris has made history, she has also drawn criticism from some individuals. One controversy that began soon after Biden announced her as his Vice Presidential pick was whether she was eligible to run for office due to her heritage.

Harris is of Caribbean and South Asian descent due to her Jamaican father Donald Harris and her Indian mother Shyamala Gopalan.

However, she was born in Oakland, California. Despite this, some have claimed Harris isn’t eligible to run, due to supposedly not being a US citizen, being the daughter of immigrant parents.

The controversy rose to prominence after Newsweek published an op-ed by Chapman University professor of law John Eastman where he questioned Harris’ eligibility to be Vice President. He even raised questions about whether she was eligible to be a US Senator.

It needs to be said that this discussion around birtherism does not come up with white candidates, and as seen when Donald Trump made similar claims about Barack Obama, is deeply entrenched in racism.

Dissecting Eastman’s claims

Much of Eastman’s argument is based on the wording of Article II and the 12th Amendment of the Constitution which determine who is able to run for President and Vice President. Article II of the Constitution states:

“No 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; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty five years, and been fourteen Years a resident within the United States.”

Meanwhile the 12th Amendment says:

“No person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice President of the United States.”

His argument specifically grapples with the term “natural-born citizen.” Eastman claims Harris does not qualify as one due to her parents being immigrants when he says:

“Her father was (and is) a Jamaican national, her mother was from India, and neither was a naturalized U.S. citizen at the time of Harris’ birth in 1964. That, according to these commentators, makes her not a “natural born citizen”—and therefore ineligible for the office of the president and, hence, ineligible for the office of the vice president.”

Eastman goes onto cite the 14th Amendment, which states:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”

His counterpoint, however, is in regards to what “jurisdiction” means in that context. Eastman claims that,

“Those who claim that birth alone is sufficient overlook the second phrase. The person must also be ‘subject to the jurisdiction’ of the United States, and that meant subject to the complete jurisdiction, not merely a partial jurisdiction such as that which applies to anyone temporarily sojourning in the United States.”

The children of immigrants, however, are under the complete jurisdiction of the United States. The only cases where people would not be under US jurisdiction would be if they had diplomatic immunity.

Another exception when the amendment was made was in regard to Native Americans. Since they lived primarily under their own tribal laws rather than US law, the federal government at the time did not consider them citizens.

In a counter-argument written by UCLA School of Law professor Eugene Volokh, Volokh writes:

“The 14th Amendment does have a narrow exception for people who were not ‘subject to the jurisdiction’ of the U.S. at birth, but the Court made clear that this was a narrow exception for ‘children of members of the Indian tribes,’ who were at the time not citizens, ‘children born of alien enemies in hostile occupation’ and ‘children of diplomatic representatives of a foreign State’.”

“Children born to noncitizens living here are certainly subject to the jurisdiction of American courts—no one thinks, for instance, that they are immune from criminal prosecutions or civil lawsuits. They are likewise ‘subject to the jurisdiction’ of the United States for citizenship purposes’.”

A resurfacing of a birther conspiracy

Soon after Eastman’s report in Newsweek, Reporters asked asked the President in a press conference about Kamala Harris’ eligibility for Vice President. Trump then mentioned Eastman’s article indirectly saying: 

“I heard it today that she doesn’t meet the requirements, and by the way, the lawyer that wrote that piece is a very highly-qualified, very talented lawyer,” said Trump. “I have no idea if that’s right. I would have assumed the Democrats would have checked that out before she gets chosen to run for Vice President.”

By not refuting the claim, Trump has helped to propagate another birther conspiracy theory. He first promoted a conspiracy like this during Barack Obama’s presidency, where he accused him of being born in Kenya as opposed to the United States. He also continually pressed him to reveal his birth certificate.

This new conspiracy is contributing to stoking racism and xenophobia against Kamala Harris, all because she’s a person of color running for Vice President.

The impact of having a more diverse election

With Kamala Harris being the first Black and Asian woman in a major party on the election ticket, she is setting a historic milestone in the American political landscape. Yet it also arguably points out a key flaw in America’s campaigning and election system.

Many successful presidential candidates appear to typically come from a very limited demographic. Specifically, they tend to not be people of color and often have established wealth or reputation to their name. Despite the campaign trail appearing to be all about persuasive words and creating connections with voters, it all comes down to money.

The world of campaign finance is massive and complex. At the end of the day though, candidates who cannot get funding from PACS, super PACS, and powerful donors are at a fundamental disadvantage. Without funding, they are ultimately unable to expand their campaign and reach out to voters who will support them.

This in turn can pose problems to those who don’t come from wealthier backgrounds or have any fame behind them. It restricts the pool of potentially successful candidates to only consist of those who have either the money, power, or both, to get their message across.

To create a more diverse election landscape in the future, the current system needs to be more open to give other candidates’ voices a chance. That means making the campaign trail about more than just money and numbers. 

With Kamala Harris being Joe Biden’s Vice Presidential pick, perhaps this may be a sign of a more diverse and inclusive political landscape in the future.