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Death or Incapacity of a President or Presidential Candidate

The Constitution sets forth the rules and procedures for when a president dies or becomes incapacitated. If the president dies while in office, the vice president assumes the office of president. If a president becomes incapacitated, the vice president assumes the presidency. When the president recovers, they can reassume their office.

If a presidential candidate becomes incapacitated or dies, things become less clear. Political parties have their own rules about how to replace a candidate. This may not be possible depending on the timing and proximity to Election Day.

This article describes the different rules and procedures for when a sitting president or a presidential candidate dies or becomes incapacitated.

What happens when a sitting president dies?

The 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that the vice president assumes the presidency if the president dies. Eight presidents have died in office. Each time, their vice presidents assumed the presidency.

Congress has also established a succession plan to replace the nation's highest office. The line of succession applies to any situation in which the president dies or in the case of the removal of the president.

The presidential succession is as follows:

For more information about the 18-member line of succession, visit USA.gov.

What happens when a sitting president becomes incapacitated?

The 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution also provides a protocol for when a president becomes incapacitated. Sections 3 and 4 of the 25th Amendment spell out the procedures.

Section 3: Voluntary Transfer of Authority

Section 3 deals with a voluntary transfer of power. To be exact, it contemplates the president making a voluntary transfer of their authority to the vice president. They do so by submitting a written statement to the President Pro Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House. The vice president then assumes the president's duties on a temporary basis.

This is something presidents may do before undergoing a medical procedure. For example, President Ronald Reagan underwent surgery in 1985. He transferred the presidency to his vice president, George H.W. Bush. President Reagan returned to the office around eight hours after surgery.

Section 4: Involuntary Transfer of Authority

Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment deals with an involuntary transfer of power. It deals with a situation in which a president cannot or will not voluntarily transfer power to the vice president.

Section 4 allows the vice president and a majority of cabinet secretaries to issue a written declaration to Congress. The declaration states that the president is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.

When Congress receives the declaration, it transfers the president's power to the vice president. The vice president then becomes the acting president. However, the president remains in office without authority.

The president may then issue a declaration of their own. In it, they may state that they are, in fact, able to carry out the duties of the office. The president's declaration kicks off an important four-day window.

During that window, the vice president remains acting president. The vice president and the cabinet may issue a second declaration during the window if they still believe the president cannot discharge his duties. If they do not issue such a declaration, the president reassumes their authority and office.

Congress will consider the second declaration. The House of Representatives and the Senate have 21 days to discuss and vote on it. If two-thirds of both bodies vote that the president cannot perform their duties, the vice president will assume the presidency.

What happens when a presidential candidate dies?

The protocol is clear for what happens when a president dies. What happens when a presidential candidate or nominee dies is less clear. Whether the political parties replace a candidate or nominee would depend on how far away the election is.

If Election Day Is Close

The Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee each have rules in place to select a replacement nominee in case a candidate steps down, dies, or becomes incapacitated.

For example, in 1972, Democrats replaced the vice-presidential candidate, Senator Thomas Eagleton. Eagleton stepped down after Democratic party members pressured him to withdraw his candidacy following reports that he had been hospitalized three times for depression. He withdrew from the race in July 1972, between the presidential nomination and the election. The Democratic National Committee then chose Sargent Shriver to take his place.

Eagleton stepped down in July, months before Election Day. As it gets closer to Election Day, it may be too late to replace names on ballots. Many voters may have already cast their votes early.

Congress could decide to postpone the presidential election to a later date. Article II of the Constitution permits Congress to do so. However, postponing the election would require the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and the current president to approve legislation to postpone it. The election date has stayed the same since it was set in 1845.

If Election Day Has Passed

If a candidate for president dies after Election Day but before Inauguration Day, the procedure for replacing them would depend on whether they were considered the president-elect.

If they are considered the president-elect, Section 3 of the 20th Amendment lays out the process: the vice-president-elect would become the president.

However, the Electoral College doesn't vote until December 14, and Congress doesn't certify the electors' votes until January 6. Experts have differing views on when the nominee becomes the president-elect. Some say the nominee becomes the president-elect by receiving a majority of electoral votes. Others say Congress must certify the votes before the candidate becomes a president-elect.

If Election Day Passes, But Before the Electoral College Votes

Another question without a clear answer is what happens if the presidential candidate dies or becomes incapacitated between Election Day and the electors' meeting.

The Electoral College consists of 538 electors. They meet on December 14 and cast their ballots to elect the president and vice president of the United States. In general, an elector casts their ballot for the candidate receiving the majority of votes in the elector's state.

Replacing a candidate after voters have cast their ballots could cause significant problems during the Electoral College process. If a candidate receives votes and cannot assume the presidency due to death or incapacity, it is not clear how the electors would proceed.

Some experts suggest the party would replace the candidate with a substitute nominee. This suggested process is similar to how the parties would proceed had the election not yet occurred. These experts suggest that the electors would cast their ballots for the substitute nominee. 

Other experts suggest that confusion and controversy over the process and substitute nominee may not lead to such an easy solution.

Further complicating matters, some states require their electors to vote for the candidates for whom they pledged to vote. In theory, these laws would require electors to cast a ballot for a deceased or incapacitated candidate.

How the Electoral College would resolve these issues is not clear. It's possible either the U.S. Supreme Court or Congress would have to determine who would sit in the White House.

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