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Death or Incapacity of a President or Presidential Candidate

If the president dies or becomes incapacitated while in office, the U.S. Constitution sets forth procedures for who assumes the president's duties. But if a presidential candidate becomes incapacitated or dies, things become less clear. There are rules in place that allow the committees for each national party to choose another nominee. However, this may not be possible depending on the timing and how close it is to Election Day.

What happens when a sitting president dies?

Under the U.S. Constitution, the vice president immediately claims the role of president if the president dies. Unfortunately, this scenario has played out numerous times in U.S. history. Congress has further established a line of succession to replace the nation's highest office as following: speaker of the House of Representatives, president pro tempore of the Senate, secretary of state, and so on down the rank for a total of 17 officials.

What happens when a sitting president becomes incapacitated?

The U.S. Constitution also provides a protocol for when a president becomes incapacitated, in Section 3 (voluntary transfer of authority) and Section 4 (involuntary transfer of authority) of the 25th Amendment.

Voluntary Transfer of Authority

Section 3 deals with a presidential declaration, during which the president voluntarily transfers his authority to the vice president by submitting his inability to discharge his duties in writing to the president pro tempore of the Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives.

The vice president then temporarily assumes the president's duties. This is something presidents occasionally do before a medical procedure that will put them under anesthesia.

Involuntary Transfer of Authority

Section 4 deals with a situation in which a president cannot or is not willing to transfer the voluntary declaration under Section 3. Historically, section 4 has never actually been used, but it allows the vice president and a majority of cabinet secretaries to determine that the president is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office."

This declaration must take place in writing, and it immediately transfers the president's power to the vice president. However, the vice president becomes “acting president" while the president remains in the office but without authority.

The president then has the option to issue their own declaration stating that they are, in fact, able to carry out the duties of the office. The president's declaration kicks off a four-day window during which the vice president remains "acting president."

The vice president, along with a majority of the cabinet secretaries, must issue a second declaration of the president's incapacity by the end of those four days, or the president gets back their powers and duties.

If a second declaration is issued, the matter goes to Congress, which has to meet within 48 hours and then has 21 days to decide the issue. Unless two-thirds of each chamber determines that the president unable to perform their duties, the president remains in power.

What happens when a presidential candidate dies?

The protocol is pretty clear for what happens when a president dies, but it is less clear for what happens when a candidate for the presidency dies. Whether a candidate for president who dies is replaced or not will likely 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 that allow their members to select a replacement nominee in case a candidate steps down, dies, or becomes incapacitated. But once it gets close to Election Day, this becomes less likely as it may be too late to replace names on ballots and many voters will likely have already placed their votes early or absentee.

Changing the candidate after votes for the previous candidate have been cast could cause major problems during the Electoral College process. In the Electoral College, 538 electors meet and cast their ballots to elect the president and vice president of the United States, usually based on the candidate with the majority votes in their state.

Having votes for different candidates could cause problems in securing the 270 electoral votes a candidate needs to become the president-elect. Some states also have laws that require electors to vote for the candidate they pledged to vote for, which could end up being the deceased or incapacitated candidate.

There is a chance that Congress could decide to postpone the election by changing the date, which it is permitted to do by Article II of the Constitution. But this would require legislation that is approved by the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and the current president. The date of the election has not been changed since it was set in 1845 as the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November by federal law.

Additionally, the Constitution also requires that the new Congress be sworn into office on January 3, and that the new president must take office on January 20, so there is not much time for delay.

If Election Day Has Passed

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

If they are considered the president-elect or vice president-elect, then 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 tally the electors' votes until January 6, so what happens if the candidate for president dies or becomes incapacitated during that time? Unfortunately, it's not exactly clear. It would likely be up to courts, and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court, to sort through these questions.

History of Candidates Being Replaced

So far, neither national party has ever had to replace a candidate for president. However, in 1972, Democrats had to replace the vice presidential candidate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton, who was George McGovern's running mate and stepped down after it was reported that he had received treatment for depression. The Democratic National Committee then chose Sargent Shriver to take his place.

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