Every four years, the United States plunges into a quagmire of political fear mongering, divisiveness and character assassination — deeper into that quagmire, anyway. And every four years, the question comes up:
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, and the death of a candidate could throw a wrench in that process. It happened once, in 1872 — Democrat Horace Greeley died on Nov. 29, between the general election and the casting of electoral votes. But the political impact was relatively minor because Greeley had already lost the popular vote.
The repercussions of a candidate 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: The people vote, then the electors vote, then Congress counts the ballots, then a new president takes office.
If a candidate dies before the general election but after they've secured the 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 former ticket), and that replacement is on the ballot for Election Day. (Robert F. Kennedy had not secured the Democratic nomination when he was assassinated in 1968.)
If a candidate dies after the general election, it gets more complicated.
After the People Have Spoken
A death between the popular vote and the meeting of the Electoral College results in the same selection of a replacement by party leadership. But here, the political implications are more serious. The people don't vote again. The replacement candidate's name goes on the Electoral College ballot, and the party expects the electors slotted for the deceased candidate to vote for the new one.
There's no federal law saying they have to, but state laws vary on the matter.
Horace Greeley died between the general election and the electoral vote. Since he'd lost the general election, the Democratic National Committee didn't bother putting a replacement on the Electoral College ballot, and Greeley received three votes. When the ballots went to Congress, lawmakers passed a measure declaring the Greeley votes invalid and certified the win for Ulysses Grant.
Were a candidate to die after this point in the election, between the Electoral College vote and the congressional ballot count, no one really knows what would happen. If the deceased had lost the electoral vote, it may have no effect on the outcome of the election. But were Congress faced with an Electoral College win for a now-dead person, all bets are off.
The "President-Elect" Problem
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." A winning presidential candidate has never died before being inaugurated, so Congress has never had to define it.
According to historian John Buescher, in 1861 there was "widespread anxiety" that Abraham Lincoln would be assassinated before taking office. But Lincoln survived long enough to avoid any confusion about succession.
The National Archives describes two possibilities: Either the Electoral College confers the designation, in which case the president-elect has died and the vice-president-elect moves up; or Congress confers the designation when it counts the electoral votes, in which case the "winning presidential candidate" has died, and Congress enters uncharted territory.
A Political Unknown
The question before Congress becomes whether the votes cast for the dead, winning candidate are valid. If so, Congress counts them, the deceased becomes president-elect, and the vice president-elect moves up.
If not, Congress tosses the votes out, and the question becomes whether the second-highest vote count should be considered a valid majority. If so, the living candidate with the most votes becomes president-elect.
If not, then no candidate has a majority of electoral votes, the 12th Amendment takes effect, and the House of Representatives picks the next U.S. president from the three living candidates with the most electoral votes.
In a two-person race, then, the breathing candidate wins.
In 2016, the people vote on Nov. 8, the Electoral College votes on Dec. 19, and Congress counts the votes on Jan. 6. Power changes hands in a peaceful, orderly fashion on Jan. 20, 2017.