On the 5th October, Republican presidential candidate and sitting president Donald J Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19. Within days, he had been rushed into an ICU and had been put on oxygen twice.
Whilst he has now recovered and looks to be in the clear, this event raised the same question that always crops up around a general election: what happens if a presidential candidate dies?
Well, the answer is… complicated, as are all things American politics.
So, what happens? Well, it depends on a few things: when they die and if they win (or would have won).
Let’s start at the earliest possibility: a candidate dies before election day. In this case, the party must nominate a new candidate, likely through the same process that produced the old candidate. Overall, not too disruptive and not too many shenanigans.
Then, what happens if a candidate dies after election day, but before the electoral college meets to vote. This has actually happened before: in 1872, Horace Greeley died three days before the electoral college met to vote for president. Three voters cast their votes for him regardless and the rest voted for other minor candidates. When congress met to formally count the votes, they voided the votes cast for Greeley and his rival candidate, Ulysses S Grant, was awarded the presidency. Quite convoluted, but at least it sets a precedent for the future possibilities.
What would happen, then, if a candidate dies after the electoral college has cast their votes, but before congress meets for the formal count? Well… we don’t know. If the candidate lost, then it doesn’t really matter, but if they won, congress would have to decide on whether to count their votes as valid or not. If the votes are counted, then the standard line of succession would be followed: the vice-president (who is chosen by the senate) would take over. If the votes aren’t counted, then the rival candidate would take the presidency. This case would likely be one of particularly high likelihood to upset the population, but congress usually aligns with the president come the election, so at least the correct party would win. (probably)
Finally, what would happen if a winning candidate dies after congress has counted the votes, but before their inauguration in late January? Well, in that case, we more or less follow the normal chain of succession, but with one slight difference. If a president-elect (the winning candidate) dies before their inauguration, then the vice-president-elect (the vice-president nominee) becomes the president-elect and will be inaugurated in the dead candidate’s place and a new vice-president elect is chosen.
And with that we are done!
So, for a quick recap, when a (winning) candidate dies:
- If they die before the election, then a new candidate is nominated.
- If they die before the electoral college votes, then, in all likelihood, the votes will be dispersed.
- If they die before congress meets, then their votes will probably be voided. If not, then the vice-president becomes president.
- If they die before the inauguration, then the vice-president get inaugurated instead.
And that… is the very convoluted explanation of what happens if a presidential candidate dies. Let’s just count ourselves lucky that this mess of a system wasn’t necessary this time around. And let’s hope it won’t be necessary for a very long time.
As the patriots out there would say, God bless America!