What happens if a presidential candidate dies before, or during, the election? Can they be replaced or will the other party get an automatic win? The answer to this question relies heavily on when the candidate dies. It also depends on party rules and state laws.
Table of Contents
- If They Die During the Primaries
- If They Die After They’re Nominated
- If They Die After the Popular Vote
- If They Die After the Electoral Vote
If They Die During the Primaries
Each party has to decide what happens to a candidate’s delegates if they die during the primaries.
The Democratic Party’s delegate selection rules don’t mention dead candidates, but they do say:
Delegates elected to the national convention pledged to a presidential candidate shall in all good conscience reflect the sentiments of those who elected them.Delegate Selection Rules, Rule 13(J)
This is pretty vague, but I’m sure it would allow for delegates to vote for someone else if their original candidate died, though it may require they vote for a similar candidate.
The Republican Party’s rules state:
If any delegate bound…to vote for a presidential candidate at the national convention demonstrates support…for any person other than the candidate to whom he or she is bound, such support shall not be recognized.Rules of the Republican Party, No. 16(a)(2)
Ballotpedia claims delegates are only bound on the first vote, but I couldn’t verify that. All I could find in the party rules is an implication that this is true:
If no candidate shall have received such majority, the chairman of the convention shall direct the roll of the states be called again and shall repeat the calling of the roll until a candidate shall have received a majority of the votes entitled to be cast in the convention.Rules of the Republican Party, No. 40(e)
This rule heavily implies delegates can change their votes, but it could just be referring to unbound delegates.
Currently, I’m of the opinion that delegates bound to a dead candidate have to vote for them during the first vote, but can vote for someone else after that.
If They Die After They’re Nominated
If a candidate is nominated by a party, but dies before the general election: the party committee can just select a replacement — although they may face problems with ballot access.
Article Two, Section 1(c) of the Democratic Party’s bylaws gives the party committee the power to replace dead nominees.
Rule No. 9 of the Republican Party specifically deals with filling vacancies:
The Republican National Committee is hereby authorized and empowered to fill any and all vacancies which may occur by reason of death, declination, or otherwise of the Republican candidate for President of the United States or the Republican candidate for Vice President of the United StatesRules of the Republican Party, No. 9(a)
The rules elaborate on how the replacement is to be selected:
- Committee members shall have a number of votes equal to their state’s delegates
- If members from the same state disagree: the votes shall be split proportionally
- A candidate has to get a majority to win
Each state is allowed to set its own ballot access dead-line, so getting on the ballot may become difficult, if the vacancy happens later in the year.
Nearly half of the states have a deadline in August, and most require certification or identification of a candidate to fill a vacancy no later than September 8.Ballotpedia
If the vacancy happens in July: a party can easily replace their candidate. If it happens in August or September, however: they might be able to get on the ballot in some states, but may not have access to enough electoral votes to have a chance of winning.
If the vacancy happens after September 8th: the candidate will not be on the ballot — meaning there will only be one major-party candidate in that election. This might result in a land-slide, or maybe a third-party candidate or Independent would fill the void.
If They Die After the Popular Vote
What happens if a candidate dies after the popular vote, but before the electoral vote? If the candidate projected to loose dies: it probably won’t be an issue, but if the winning candidate dies: it becomes a problem.
The Constitution is silent on this issue, since it doesn’t bind electors at all, although many states have “faithless elector” laws that force electors to vote a certain way.
Thirty-four states and DC, with a total of 347 electoral votes, allow faithless electors, so they can just vote for another candidate.
Fourteen states, with 123 electoral votes, will replace faithless electors, while three states, with 68 electoral votes, will penalize faithless electors, but will allow their votes to be counted.
The six states that passed the Uniform Faithful Presidential Electors Act only require electors to vote for the party that nominated them, and Iowa, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Oklahoma all have similar statutes. Furthermore, California and Utah do not require electors to vote for dead candidates.
Only four states that disallow faithless electors are silent on the issue: Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Michigan, with a total of forty electoral votes. All of these states will replace faithless electors anyways, meaning they have to vote for the dead candidate.
Forty electoral votes might seem small, but they could be catastrophic in the case of a close election like 2020 — especially since thirty-nine of them went to Joe Biden.
If Biden had died after the popular vote: his successor would have been six votes short of a majority, and the President would have to be elected by the House of Representatives. The Twelfth Amendment states:
if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one voteConstitution of the United States, Amendment Twelve
It doesn’t say they can’t vote for a dead candidate, so I presume it would be between them, the other major-party candidate, and whichever third-party candidate managed to get third place (probably the Libertarian).
I doubt a third-party candidate would win — or even get a single state’s vote — so they’re out of the question. The House is mostly Democrat, but since each state delegation gets one vote: that naturally benefits the Republican.
If the dead candidate is elected: they’d immediately be replaced by their Vice Presidential candidate, but if the other major-party candidate is chosen: we’d end up with a President and Vice President from different parties!
This is because, even though you only get to vote for both together, electors vote for them separately.
If Trump had died after the popular vote: Biden still would’ve won, but his successor would’ve been denied one electoral vote.
If They Die After the Electoral Vote
If the electoral vote has already been cast: the President has already been elected, and the Vice President-elect will become the President-elect.
After the 2020 election, many Republicans — including most Republicans in the House — voted to reject the official results in Arizona and Pennsylvania. A similar situation might happen if the President dies between the electoral vote and January sixth.
The Democrats are unlikely to try anything like that (but then again, they aren’t immune to hypocrisy), but the Republicans might, if it would deny victory to a Democrat.
If the President-elect died after Congress certified the results: they would be replaced by the Vice President — although some may object on the basis that the dead candidate never took the oath of office.
In either case, it’s most likely that the Vice President would become President.
If a presidential candidate dies during the primaries: their electors will be able to choose someone else.
If a nominee dies before the popular vote: they can be replaced by their party’s committee — but if it’s too late: they might not get on the ballot in enough states!
If they die between the popular vote and the electoral vote: most states allow electors to choose someone else, but up to forty votes may go to a dead candidate!
If they die after the electoral vote: they’ll probably be replaced by the Vice President.
Although I’ve done lots of research on this topic, I can’t predict the future — neither do I have a law degree — so if it ever comes down to it: the Supreme Court will probably have to issue a ruling to decide what actually happens.
Hopefully, Congress (or the states) will realize this problem and fix all the loop-holes and uncertainties I mentioned above with a constitutional amendment.
Alvin Chang. “The long list of Republicans who voted to reject election results” The Guardian, 7 Jan. 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jan/07/list-republicans-voted-to-reject-election-results. Accessed 24 Sep. 2021.
Ballotpedia Editors. “Republican delegate rules, 2020”. Ballotpedia, https://ballotpedia.org/Republican_delegate_rules,_2020. Accessed 24 Sep. 2021.
Ballotpedia Editors. “State laws and party rules on replacing a presidential nominee, 2020” Ballotpedia, https://ballotpedia.org/State_laws_and_party_rules_on_replacing_a_presidential_nominee,_2020. Accessed 24 Sep. 2021.
Constitution Annotated. Congress.gov, https://constitution.congress.gov/browse/essay/artII-S1-C6-1/ALDE_00001125/. Accessed 24 Sep. 2021.
Constitution Annotated. Congress.gov, https://constitution.congress.gov/constitution/amendment-12/. Accessed 24 Sep. 2021.
Democratic National Committee. “The Charter & Bylaws of the Democratic Party of the United States”. DNC, 25 Aug. 2018, https://democrats.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/DNC-Charter-Bylaws-8.25.18-with-Amendments.pdf. Accessed 24 Sep. 2021.
FairVote. “Faithless Elector State Laws”. FairVote, 7 Jul. 2020, https://www.fairvote.org/faithless_elector_state_laws. Accessed 24 Sep. 2021.
Republican National Committee. “The Rules of the Republican Party”. RNC, 24 Aug. 2020, https://prod-cdn-static.gop.com/docs/Rules_Of_The_Republican_Party.pdf. Accessed 24 Sep. 2021.
Uniform Law Commission. “UNIFORM FAITHFUL PRESIDENTIAL ELECTORS ACT”. ULC, https://www.uniformlaws.org/HigherLogic/System/DownloadDocumentFile.ashx?DocumentFileKey=a2289128-9da7-f288-a404-79a44fbf15ad&forceDialog=0. Accessed 24 Sep. 2021.
Arizona Revised Statutes, Title 16-212
California Code, Elections Code, §6906
Colorado Revised Statutes, §1-4-304
Iowa Code, §54.5
Maine Statutes, Title 21-A, §805
Michigan Compiled Laws, §168.47
North Carolina General Statutes, §163-212
Oklahoma Statutes, §26-10-102
South Carolina Code of Laws, §7-19-80
Utah Code, §20A-13-304