Every four years, the United States plunges into a quagmire of political fear mongering, divisiveness and character assassination — deeper into that quagmire, anyway. We're, of course, talking about the presidential election. And every four years, people ask: What happens if one of the candidates dies during the election?
It's an awkward but reasonable inquiry. The peaceful, orderly transfer of power is a defining trait of a working democracy, but the death of a candidate could throw a wrench in that process. It's happened once before in the United States in 1872.
That's when Horace Greeley joined a group of Republican dissenters who were against then-president Ulysses S. Grant's reelection, and formed the Liberal Republican Party. The party nominated Greeley for president.
Greeley gained more than 40 percent of the popular vote, but before the Electoral College met, Greeley died. Three electors pledged their votes for him anyway; other electors cast their Greeley votes for minor candidates instead. When the ballots went to Congress, lawmakers passed a measure declaring the Greeley votes invalid and certified the win for Grant. In the end, Grant was reelected with 286 electoral votes.
So what this means is the repercussions of a candidate's death depend primarily on when it occurs. And at some stages in the election process, it's not really clear what would happen.
Quick Civics Refresher
The United States is a representative democracy, not a direct democracy, so the people don't actually elect the president. U.S. voters elect the members of the Electoral College, and the members of the Electoral College elect the president.
So the presidential-election process goes like this: The people vote, then the electors vote, then Congress counts the ballots, then a new president is sworn into office.
If a candidate dies before the general election but after they've secured their party's nomination, it's a relatively simple fix: The deceased candidate's party picks a replacement (who may or may not be the vice presidential candidate from the ticket), and that replacement is on the ballot on Election Day. Both the Republican and the Democratic parties have rules about how their parties would fill the vacancy.
If a candidate dies after the general election, it gets more complicated.
After the People Have Spoken
If a candidate dies between the popular vote and the meeting of the Electoral College the parties follow the same process to fill the vacancy on the ticket. If the candidate that dies is on the winning ticket, it's still the party's responsibility to provide a new candidate their electors could vote into office.
But here, the political implications are more serious because it takes some of the power away from the people; they don't get to vote again. The replacement candidate's name goes on the Electoral College ballot only, and their political party expects its electors to vote the replacement candidate into office.
There's no federal law saying the electors have to vote for the new candidate. Theoretically, if the candidate to whom they pledged their votes dies and their party doesn't name a preferred successor, electors could vote for the party's VP candidate, a third-party candidate or a leading contender within their own party. But state laws vary on the matter.
The President-Elect Problem
But what if the president-elect dies — meaning the winning presidential candidate dies after the election but before the inauguration on Jan. 20?
The 20th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that if the president-elect dies, the rules of succession apply, and the vice-president-elect becomes the president-elect. Unfortunately, it's not clear when in the process a winning candidate becomes president-elect.
The winning candidate definitely assumes the title president-elect after Jan. 6, when Congress officially counts the Electoral College votes and declares a winner. But a winning presidential candidate has never died before being inaugurated, so Congress has never had to define president-elect.
A Political Unknown
If the winning presidential candidate dies between Dec. 15 but before Jan. 6, Congress would have to decide whether to count the votes cast for them. If Congress chooses to validate the votes, the laws of presidential succession are carried out, and the winning candidate's vice president becomes president-elect. If Congress chooses not to validate the votes, however, the question will be whether the living candidate has a majority of the overall electoral votes. If they don't, then the 12th Amendment says the House of Representatives must elect the president from among the three candidates with the most votes.
In a two-person race, then, the breathing candidate wins.
In 2020, the people vote on Tuesday, Nov. 3; the Electoral College votes on Dec. 14, 2020; and Congress counts the electoral votes on Jan. 6, 2021. The new president and vice president will be inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2021.