What happens if a presidential candidate dies prior to election?

Andrew Hansen, News Writer

What happens if a presidential candidate is unable to serve, through illness or death, prior to an election?

In a normal election year, this question wouldn’t be on the mind of any average citizen.  This year, however, it seems to be a considerable possibility.

Both candidates are over the age of 70, President Donald Trump recently tested positive for, and then recovered from, the coronavirus, and then one of Joe Biden’s campaign team members tested positive.

Even still, who becomes the candidate if the person listed on the ballot is unable to accept the presidency is a bit confusing. David Siemers, a political science professor at UW Oshkosh, seeks to shed some light on the subject.

“Let’s say one of the candidates got COVID, it takes a turn for the worst and they die. Right now, the respective national committees would replace the candidate,” Siemers said. “The party nominees don’t have any governmentally official status; they’re just the party’s nominee.”

Ballots for a deceased candidate that have already been submitted also have the potential of causing a bit of a legal conundrum.

“One complication is that the ballots have already been printed in virtually every state,” Siemers said. “People would still have to vote for the dead candidate to allow the replacement to take their place as President.”

In July, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that states may require electors to support the candidate picked by voters in the election. Currently, 33 states have laws against so-called “faithless electors.”

But even so, these laws don’t apply should the candidate become unable to serve prior to the election. In this situation, it may be entirely up to a state representative’s discretion which candidate they vote for.

“The will of the voters doesn’t take into consideration a candidate dying; you can’t anticipate that,” Siemers said.

In the case of a president-elect were to become unable to serve before inauguration day, Siemers stated that it’s assumed that the vice-presidential candidate becomes the president-elect and has to choose a new running mate, which may create opportunities for litigation from the opposing party.

The most recent time a nominee has died close to the election was Horace Greeley against Ulysses S. Grant in the 1872 presidential election. It should be noted that the deceased candidate, Greeley, had already lost the election, so the overall outcome of the voting remained unaltered. A winning candidate dying this close to the election would be unprecedented.

All of this leads to another question: Why is there such a long wait time between Election Day and Inauguration Day?

“On one hand, the president-elect has over 2,000 offices he/she has to fill, but with a President who is not elected continuing in office while the election is going on, there is the potential that a certain amount of mischief would be made by that person,” Siemers said.

The third and final debate is scheduled to happen Thursday night if both candidates decide to make an appearance.