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What Happens If A Presidential Candidate Dies?

Two portraits of Joe Biden and Donald Trump
Matt Rourke and Patrick Semansky
Associated Press
Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden are in an age group vulnerable to the coronavirus, and here in the U.S., it appears that COVID-19 is killing more men than women.

With so much pandemic all the time, it can be easy to forget that we’ve got a presidential election coming up. But it is worth remembering that our current president, and his presumptive opponent, are vulnerable to the coronavirus. 

Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden are in their seventies — and here in the U.S., it appears that COVID-19 is killing more men than women.

Which prompted Jo Ann Duprey of Springfield to send us this question:

What happens if Joe Biden is incapacitated or dies either from COVID-19 or any number of other problems? 

This was one of those questions that seemed destined for our colleague Bob Kinzel. He’s VPR’s senior political reporter, and every once in a while, he too answers listener questions, in a segment called Ask Bob. So we passed Jo Ann’s question over to Bob, and he answered it on the air. And now we want to share it with you.

What if Joe Biden dies before the Democratic National Convention in August?

It would be up to the delegates at the convention to select a new nominee. It's thought that Biden's selection of a vice presidential candidate would be considered the frontrunner. But other candidates could try to make their case to the delegates.

In the end, the candidate who receives a majority of delegate votes will be declared the Democratic presidential nominee.

What if a party's presidential nominee dies between the convention and Election Day?

This is still pretty straightforward. If this happens, the national political committees would meet and select a new nominee.

Now, if the death took place in October, a number of states would have already started early voting, including Vermont, where early voting begins 45 days before an election. But it's thought that this really wouldn't be a problem, because voters in November are technically voting for a slate of electors, not a specific candidate. So votes for the candidate who died would be transferred to the party's replacement candidate.

However, if this happened, let's say, a week before the election, Congress does have the authority to reschedule the election to allow time for a new candidate to be selected.

No presidential candidate has ever died in this time period. But one vice presidential candidate did.

It was 1912. Then-Republican Vice President James Sherman died in late October, just before the election. (He was the first vice president to fly in an airplane and the first to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game). He was not replaced on the ticket with President William Howard Taft. That vacancy became a moot point when Woodrow Wilson won the election.

Click here for VPR's 2020 Election voter guide.

What if a party's presidential candidate dies between Election Day in November and the Electoral College meeting in December?

We’re now headed into unchartered waters that can probably only be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court. Here's why: different states have different rules regarding how electors can vote. Now, some states like Vermont require the electors to vote for the winning candidate. You have to, but that person is now dead. So what do you do?

Some states allow electors to vote for somebody else. It almost never happens, but it could legally. (As a side note, the U.S. Supreme Court is actually reviewing a case right now about whether or not a state can bind its electors).

Now, if the electors were not bound to vote for the winning candidate, they were they would be free to vote for whoever they wanted to.

In 1872, Democratic presidential candidate Horace Greeley died between the election and the meeting of the Electoral College in mid-December. He only won a couple of states and some electors did vote for Greeley. Some did not.

But when Congress met in January of 1873 to certify the Electoral College votes, they threw out all the votes for Greeley because he was a dead candidate.

Again, it was a moot point because President Grant was reelected that year.

What if a party's presidential nominee dies between the Electoral College meeting in December and the Senate confirmation vote in January?

If this happens, everything is up for grabs. The 20th Amendment says if the president-elect dies before beginning his or her term, then the vice president-elect is chosen.

That seems pretty straightforward, but there's a legal debate over when a person actually becomes “president-elect.” Does it happen after the Electoral College votes in December, or after Congress certifies the Electoral College vote in early January?

At this point, the U.S. Supreme Court would be asked to step in and then rule on that issue.

As always, thanks for being a part of Brave Little State's process. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast for free, so you don't miss the next episode, and sign up for our free e-newsletter.

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Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions. Brave Little State has support from the VPR Innovation Fund, and VPR members. You can show your support by making a gift to the station, following us on Instagram or Twitter, or leaving us a review on your favorite podcast app.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Angela Evancie serves as Vermont Public's Senior VP of Content, and was the Director of Engagement Journalism and the Executive Producer of Brave Little State, the station's people-powered journalism project.
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