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US Election 2020

US Election 2020: what happens if a president-elect dies?

It’s extremely unlikely to happen to Biden, but at 77 he’s also contending with a pandemic and a fiercely divided electorate, so nothing is impossible.

US Election 2020: what happens if a president-elect dies?
DPA vía Europa Press DPA vía Europa Press

Joe Biden will be the oldest president ever at the start of his term, having won an overwhelming mandate from the American people yesterday to be their 46th President in January. He delivered his acceptance speech yesterday from Delaware, joined by vice-president elect Kamala Harris

Biden will turn 78 years old on 20 November, which will make him the oldest president in history on inauguration day in January 2021, a title formerly held by Ronald Reagan, who was 77 when he left office in 1989.Donald Trump was 70 when he was inaugurated.

Now, it may seem a bit morbid given Biden has only just celebrated his win but, out of curiosity we’re going to explore what would happen if this worst case scenario did pan out.

What happens if a president-elect dies before inauguration?

First there’s the Electoral College vote on 14 December. If Biden were to pass away before that date, the Democratic National Committee, or DNC, could be in charge of naming a replacement candidate and persuading the electors for each state to vote for the new candidate instead of Biden. It’s safe to assume that this would be Kamala Harris, though there’s no legal requirement that states it should be her. Also, most states have laws, upheld by the Supreme Court, that penalise any “faithless electors" who switch their vote, so it’s likely that a DNC-selected candidate would win the same votes.

Once the electorates have voted for Biden, he officially becomes president-elect. If he were to die before Congress certifies the electoral votes in early January, but still before inauguration, things get a little trickier.

When Congress meet in January to certify the electoral votes, members are allowed to raise objections to any state’s electoral selection. If the two chambers agree to uphold the objection, Congress could then award that state’s electoral votes to a different person. This could even be the opponent, Donald Trump. Needless to say that scenario is highly unlikely. The most likely outcome would be that is that under the 20th Amendment  governing presidential succession, again the job would be fall to the vice-president elect Kamala Harris.

Has a president elect ever died before taking office?

Remarkable though it is after 45 presidencies in the Unites States, no.

Though notably Horace Greeley passed away after Election Day 1872. That wasn’t problematic in a presidential sense, given that Greeley had been roundly defeated by incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant.

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