Presidential Elections: Vacancies in Major-Party Candidacies and the Position of President-Elect (CRS R44648)

What would happen in 2020 if a candidate for President or Vice President were to die or leave the ticket any time between the national party conventions and the November 3 election day? What would happen if this occurred during presidential transition, either between election day and the December 14, 2020, meeting of the electoral college; or between December 14 and the inauguration of the President and Vice President on January 20, 2021? Procedures to fill these vacancies differ depending on when they occur.

During the Election Campaign—Between the National Party Nominating Conventions and the Election. After the conventions, which are usually held in July or August, and election day, November 3 in 2020, political party rules apply. For the Democrats, the Democratic National Committee would select a replacement; for the Republicans, the Republican National Committee would select a replacement, or it could reconvene the national convention to perform this task. Between the Election and the Electoral College Meeting. On election day, voters choose members of the electoral college, which formally selects the President- and Vice President-elect several weeks later, December 14 in 2020. Although the transition has begun, party rules still apply: a replacement candidate would be chosen by the national committees of either party, or by a reassembled Republican National Convention.

Notwithstanding these party rules, the presidential nominee would likely have a decisive influence in selecting a replacement for a departed vice-presidential running mate. If a presidential nominee were to leave the ticket, the vice-presidential nominee would arguably not be considered the automatic successor for their running mate at the top of the ticket, although they would likely be seriously considered.

Between the Electoral College Meeting and Inauguration. The balance of scholarly opinion holds that the President- and Vice President-elect are chosen once the electoral votes are cast. The electoral votes are counted and declared by a joint session of Congress, held January 6 of the year following the election, although Congress occasionally sets a different date for the joint session.

During this period, succession is covered by the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution: if the President-elect dies, the Vice President-elect becomes President-elect. Although the amendment does not specifically address the issues of disability, disqualification, or resignation during this period, its language, “failure to qualify,” could arguably be interpreted to cover such contingencies. Vacancies in the position of Vice President-elect are not mentioned in the Twentieth Amendment; they would be covered after the inauguration by the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.

If no person qualifies as President or Vice President by inauguration day, then the Succession Act (3 U.S.C. 19) applies: the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the President pro tempore of the Senate, and duly confirmed Cabinet officers, in that order, would act as President.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, concern about potential terrorist attacks at the inauguration led to proposals to secure the line of presidential succession during the swearing in ceremony, especially during a change of Administrations. Since 2009, a constitutionally eligible official, a “designated survivor” or successor, has stayed away from the ceremony in order to ensure continuity in the presidency. That year, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a George W. Bush appointee who remained in office in the Barack H. Obama Administration, did not attend the inauguration ceremony, followed by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki in 2013. At the 2017 inauguration of President Donald J. Trump, Senate President pro tempore Orrin Hatch served as designated successor.

“Presidential Elections: Vacancies in Major-Party Candidacies and the Position of President-Elect,” CRS Report R44648, October 9, 2020 (14-page PDFPDF)

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