A birth at a location is a historical event. All states, according to their laws, register birth events and associated data (parents information, location, date of birth, etc.) about births that occur within its jurisdiction.
States receive birth information in a variety of ways. In the past and still in many states today, birth registration starts with a paper form, signed by someone at a hospital. States register birth events based on these hospital reports, verifying data quality and completeness, accepting, signing and stamping a number (a “state file number” or a “certificate number”). In some states birth registrations are done at the local level, where the record is then forwarded to the State. (This appears to have been the process in Hawaii in the 1960’s.)
Sometimes, particularly for births that are not reported close to the time of birth, registrations are based on information sworn by individuals who have direct knowledge of the facts of birth. These special registrations are called Delayed Certificates. Any birth registration not attended by a licensed medical practitioner is called a “low doc” registration (low level of documentation). Delayed registrations and other “low doc” registrations are the most common source of registration fraud.
In modern systems, birth events are either transmitted to the state vital records agency in an electronic data file, or hospitals directly enter their births into a state-supplied software system directly connected to the state. With the advent of electronic health records (EHR), hospital systems are going paperless. There is no longer any hospital paper form.
States under their laws and regulations certify to others that births are registered. Sometimes they photocopy registered hospital reports onto security paper, stamp and seal them. Nowadays, when there there are no hospital records to photocopy (or because electronic certificate issuance is more efficient), they print information from their computer databases onto security paper, stamp and seal those. However the state does it, the result is a “certified copy” or a “birth certificate”.
Under the Electronic Verification of Vital Events (EVVE) project, currently operating in several states, birth verification is all electronic. Paper birth certificates may soon become all but obsolete. I could easily envision a secretary of state calling the local state DMV office to verify a candidate’s eligibility electronically with another state. EVVE should be in place in nearly all jurisdictions in time for the 2012 election.