This blog post was originally shared on Oct. 1, 2020 on Election Law Blog. View the original post here

The President and First Lady reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus. As the New York Times notes, “Mr. Trump’s positive test result could pose immediate difficulties for the future of his campaign against former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., his Democratic challenger, with just 33 days before the election on Nov. 3. Even if Mr. Trump, 74, remains asymptomatic, he will have to withdraw from the campaign trail and stay isolated in the White House for an unknown period of time. If he becomes sick, it could raise questions about whether he should remain on the ballot at all.”

And of course with the President having just attended the debate earlier this week with Joe Biden, there could be concerns about Biden’s health as well.

I wish everyone who has contracted this terrible disease a full and speedy recovery.

But as a matter of national importance we need to ask what would happen if one of the presidential candidates died or became incapacitated before election day. Rick Pildes and Joshua Tucker did a two part series on the different permutations of what could happen, but this seems to fall within the cracks. Here’s the most relevant part of that discussion:

Joshua Tucker: What happens if the party’s nominee dies or withdraws after having been officially nominated but before the November election?

Richard Pildes: This puts the ball in the hands of the “national political parties,” which for this purpose means the legal entities known as the Democratic and Republican national committees.

The Democratic National Committee has a clear rule for this situation. The 447 members of the Democratic National Committee, the entity that formally hosts the convention, would choose the new nominee. The DNC chair, currently Tom Perez, is required to consult with the Democratic leadership in Congress and with the Democratic Governors Association. After the consultation, the chair provides a report to the DNC members, who then make the choice.

The Republican National Committee’s rules are similar. The RNC has 168 members — three from each state, plus three from six territories. The RNC’s rules provide that the three members from each state cast the same number of votes that their state or territory is entitled to at the convention. So Alaska’s three members get to cast a total of 28 votes, for example. If those three members disagree, they each get to cast one-third of those votes.

Second, the parties would now have to replace the name of their dead candidate on each state’s ballot with that of the new candidate. Depending on when this happens, that might not be simple. Different states have different deadlines for when the parties must certify their candidates for the ballot. In 2016, most were in August and September. If states do not have laws that permit changing the candidate’s name after that date, courts would probably have to be brought in. It’s hard to imagine courts refusing to permit one of the two major parties to replace a deceased candidate’s name with that of a validly chosen replacement.

The problem here is that ballots are already out and millions of people have already voted. At this point it seems impossible for candidates to come up with a new name to replace a name on the ballot without starting the whole election process over, which is not possible in the 30+ days before election day. Congress could pass a bill delaying the election but I find it hard to believe it would do so.

While things are not certain, what’s most likely that the election would take place on time with the deceased or incapacitated candidate’s name on the ballot, and then there would be a question if legislatures would allow presidential electors of each state to vote for someone other than the deceased candidate. Only some state laws provide for this eventuality. (Update: Some states provide that the votes for a named replacement are counted.) Or perhaps the legislatures would seek to appoint electors directly. This could lead to a whole lot of mischief if, say, the Pennsylvania Republican legislature tried, over the Democratic governor’s objection, to appoint electors to vote for Pence (if it were Trump who could no longer be a candidate) despite a vote for the people of Pennsylania for Biden over Trump.

See this exchange between Tucker and Pildes on a closely analogous issue:

J.T.: What if the winner of the November election dies or withdraws before the electoral college meets in December?

R.P.: This is the messiest situation and could unleash a lot of different maneuvers and disputes.

The issue is how an elector should or can cast their vote if the candidate their state has voted for dies after the election.

The initial questions are both constitutional and state-law based. Indeed, in cases argued on Wednesday, May 13, before the Supreme Court, Chiafalo v. Washington and Colorado Department of State v. Baca, the court will decide whether it is constitutional for states to “bind” their electors to vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in that state.

If the court holds that states can constitutionally bind their electors, then in a state that has done so, those laws do not specify whether an elector must still vote for a now-dead candidate and, if not, who they must or can vote for instead. When these laws were written, state legislatures were not thinking about this remote possibility. This is a glitch: States that bind electors should amend these laws to specify what an elector can or must do in this circumstance.

As a practical matter, if the parties have been vigilant, the electors should be extremely loyal to their political party. Even if the electors are formally bound by state law to vote for the dead candidate, I would expect them to cast their presidential vote for the vice-presidential nominee of that party.

But I can conjure up more complex scenarios. Remember, Congress ultimately “counts” the electors’ votes. Say Candidate A wins in State X, and then dies — but State X’s legislature strongly opposes Candidate A’s vice-presidential choice. One could imagine that state legislature appointing a new slate of electors committed to voting for a different candidate for president. It is unclear if states can constitutionally do this. We also don’t know if courts would get involved to decide that issue. Moreover, since Congress ultimately decides which electors’ votes to count, Congress might become a central player and decide what counts as a valid electoral vote in the various circumstances this scenario might unleash.

Since Pildes made these remarks, the Supreme Court decided Chaifalo (holding that states could bind electors to vote the way that the popular vote of the state goes), and Justice Kagan’s majority opinion actually discussed the issue in a footnote:

8 The Electors contend that elector discretion is needed to deal with the possibility that a future presidential candidate will die between Election Day and the Electoral College vote. See Reply Brief 20–22. We do not dismiss how much turmoil such an event could cause. In recognition of that fact, some States have drafted their pledge laws to give electors voting discretion when their candidate has died. See, e.g., Cal. Elec. Code Ann. §6906; Ind. Code §3–10–4–1.7. And we suspect that in such a case, States without a specific provision would also release electors from their pledge. Still, we note that because the situation is not before us, nothing in this opinion should be taken to permit the States to bind electors to a deceased candidate.

In short, there would be a ton of uncertainty if we faced such a tragedy as a presidential candidate dying during this period. As if 2020 could not get more complicated and crazy…

Richard L. Hasen

UCI Law

Richard L. Hasen is Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. Professor Hasen is a nationally recognized expert in election law and campaign finance regulation, writing as well in the areas of legislation and statutory interpretation, remedies, and torts. He is co-author of leading casebooks in election law and remedies.

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