What happens if a presidential candidate dies?

In an election like no other, the sudden illness or death of either Trump or Biden could invalidate votes already cast in 50 states. How does the US system deal with death or illness when it comes to the top job?

When Donald Trump contracted COVID-19 one month out from polling day, it ignited a series of uncomfortable questions about the President’s mortality and the path of succession in a fiercely divided America.

People across the globe have wished the President a speedy recovery and Trump would have us believe he’s well on his way, declaring on Twitter even while in hospital: “I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”

But what would happen if Trump didn’t recover? What if he died before the election was held, or emerged the winner only to take a turn for the worse after the November 3 poll?

Or what if 77-year-old Joe Biden were stricken in the next three weeks or won the election and then died?

What if the president-elect, whoever that might be, died before inauguration day?

While these are macabre hypotheticals, Trump’s health, Biden’s age and the unpredictable nature of 2020 means the speculation is not outlandish.

Here are some of the ways things could still go wrong.

US President Donald Trump's first video address after he was admitted to hospital for treatment of COVID-19.Credit:Twitter/@realDonaldTrump

If Trump is incapacitated, what happens?

Let’s just say Trump’s COVID-19 symptoms get dramatically worse or he needs a serious medical procedure that renders him incapable of discharging his duties. Fortunately, the US constitution's 25th amendment allows the President to transfer executive power to the second-in-command.

Trump would need to declare in writing that he can’t do the job and Mike Pence would become the acting president until Trump could resume his duties (once again, by declaring in writing that he’s capable of doing so).

President George W. Bush invoked this provision, known as section 3 of the 25th amendment, when he needed colonoscopies in 2002 and 2007, temporarily transferring power to his then vice-president, Dick Cheney.

In 1985, president Ronald Reagan also allowed his VP, who was then George H.W. Bush, to become acting president for about eight hours while the president had a precancerous lesion removed.

George W. Bush briefing reporters on June 28, 2002 on the colonoscopy he would have the next day. His vice-president, Dick Cheney, assumed acting command for a few hours. Credit:Reuters

What if Trump doesn’t think he's incapacitated but others think he is?

Another clause in the 25th amendment – section 4 – allows the vice-president and a majority of the cabinet, Congress, or a group appointed by Congress, to intervene.

This would involve informing the leaders of the House and the Senate that the President is unable to discharge his duties. Trump could try to resume office by telling the same two congressional leaders that “no inability exists” – but this could be challenged by the vice-president and cabinet. In which case, Congress would have to assemble within 48 hours, and then decide within 21 days what to do.

If two-thirds of the House of Representatives and two-thirds of the Senate vote that the president can’t discharge his duties, then the vice-president would serve in acting capacity until the next presidential election.

Gerald Ford became president after Nixon resigned in 1974.Credit:UPI

How has succession worked in the past?

The 25th amendment wasn't ratified until 1967, under president Lyndon Johnson, who in 1963 had assumed the presidency after John Kennedy was assassinated. It aimed to clarify the rules of succession for the vice-presidency and the presidency.

It was first used seven years later, on August 9, 1974, when Richard Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford became the president, a year after he'd been made vice-president after Spiro Agnew resigned.

Eight American presidents have died in office (four by assassination, four from natural causes).

Eight American presidents have died in office (four by assassination, four from natural causes) and each has been replaced by the vice-president, but before the 25th amendment was ratified, the process wasn't always clear-cut, as the constitution was vague on the rules of succession.

When William Henry Harrison became the first US president to die in office in 1841 (probably of typhoid), vice-president John Tyler argued with Congress over the need to be sworn in to become president.

Vice-president Chester Arthur was reluctant to be seen acting as president while president James Garfield lingered on his death bed for two months after he was shot in 1881, leaving a power vacuum before Garfield finally died of his wounds.

World War I president Woodrow Wilson suffered a serious stroke in 1919 after contracting the Spanish flu in Paris while negotiating the Treaty of Versailles. His condition was covered up by his inner circle and vice-president Thomas Marshall never pushed to take over in an acting role, despite urgings from some congressmen who knew how feeble the president had become.

The shooting of president Garfield in 1881. He later died from his wounds.Credit:Getty Images

But what happens if a presidential candidate dies during an election?

This is where things get tricky, because much of the answer depends on timing, and there's no precedent for a presidential candidate dying so close to election day.

Under "normal" circumstances, the Republican Party's rules would provide two options to replace a presidential candidate on the ballot. The first would involve the 168-member Republican National Committee selecting another candidate by majority vote.

The second would involve reconvening the Republican National Convention – the gathering where delegates formally named Trump as their nominee back in August – to pick an alternative to put on the ballot.

In Biden's case, a similar process would ordinarily apply through its 429-member Democratic National Committee.

It is now too late to reprint, re-issue and re-accept ballots with the name of a new nominee.

But these are not normal circumstances. Indeed, given how close we are to election day – with more than 60 million ballots already sent to voters and millions of votes already cast in the mail – it would be too late to reprint, re-issue and re-accept ballots with the name of the new nominee.

So if Trump or Biden were to die between now and the November 3 poll, their running mates, Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, respectively, would be their likely replacements – but wouldn't necessarily replace them on the ballot paper.

The election would most likely take place with a dead candidate’s name on the documentation. Whichever way you slice it, it would be a very messy and confusing process that could pave the way for all sorts of future challenges.

Millions of ballots have already been mailed out to voters across the U.S. Credit:Record-Journal

What if a candidate dies after they win the election?

In order to win the White House, Trump or Biden must get the backing of a majority of the Electoral College – at least 270 electors – whose job it is to pick the president based on the outcome in each state.

But the Electoral College doesn't vote until December 14 – more than a month after election day on November 3.

After this, Congress meets for a joint session on January 6 to formally count those votes and ratify the result. And technically, the presidential term doesn't officially end until noon on inauguration day, which is January 20, 2021.

If Trump or Biden were to die before the Electoral College meets on December 14, their party would have to coordinate its electors to vote for a chosen replacement, who would most likely be the vice-presidential candidate.

In theory, the electors could then coalesce around the replacement. However, even this is not guaranteed, as some jurisdictions give the Electoral College more voter discretion than others, depending on individual state laws.

Alternatively, if Trump or Biden won the election and then died after the College had voted- but before Congress meets – Congress would have to decide if the Electoral College votes were to be counted.

And if a person dies after being ratified by Congress, the 20th Amendment would kick in. This dictates that the vice-president elect is sworn in as president on inauguration day.

Has this happened before?

One of the closest examples might be that of former New York congressman Horace Greeley, who ran for office in 1872 against incumbent president Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant won the election in a landslide, with almost 56 per cent of the popular vote to his rival's 44 per cent.

Although some Electoral College votes were pledged to Greeley, he died shortly after the election. Most of his pledged votes were dispersed to other candidates, but some were not – resulting in Congress invalidating them.

Presidential candidate Horace Greeley died of exhaustion at the end of his campaign in 1872. Credit:Getty

Couldn’t the election just be delayed?

It might seem like the easy answer, given the murkiness of all other options.

Even Trump himself has previously suggested delaying the election in the context of his months-long campaign against mail-in voting, tweeting in July:

But while Congress could, in theory, pass laws to delay an election, the chances of this happening are slim.

Indeed, a US presidential election has never been delayed during a national crisis – not even during the Civil War.

This has been a hell of a year, but it’s highly unlikely to stop America’s electoral cycle from reaching its much-needed conclusion.

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