The question of presidential succession

Illustration by Rainee Favela

Since the COVID-19 pandemic first struck the United States in late February and early March, there have been some concerns among the public regarding the upcoming presidential election in November. As the election creeps closer, these worries were magnified by the news that President Trump, who is also the Republican nominee for this year’s election, was diagnosed with COVID-19.

According to The Washington Post, the current question plaguing the minds of both citizens and politicians is: “What would happen if a presidential candidate were to die close to an election?” Andrew Dzeguze, professor of politics and international affairs, explained that little is known about what happens if a presidential candidate dies between now and when the Electoral College meets in December. He also clarified that with the presidential election, U.S. citizens are selecting electors for the Electoral College rather than using the popular vote to finalize the president. 

“Until the Electoral College meets, votes and either declares a winner or can’t — if no one gets 270 votes — then, theoretically, what happened on Election Day wouldn’t tell us who won,” Dzeguze said in an email interview. “Since the candidates were chosen by the Democratic and Republican parties, and technically we are picking Democratic or Republican declared electors, it might be that the winning party would claim the power to substitute in a candidate.” 

Another aspect of this discussion is that several states within the U.S. retain laws declaring citizen votes as strict instructions for an elector to vote for a specific candidate. According to The Washington Post, Colorado is one such state that routinely requires electors to cast their votes for the same candidate who carried the highest number of votes in the general election.

These state laws regarding electors’ votes were recently questioned in the Chiafalo v. Washington Supreme Court case that was argued May 13 and decided July 6. Chiafalo’s summary states that three Washington electors violated their pledges to support former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, in accordance with the general election’s popular vote. The state of Washington, in turn, fined each elector $1,000 apiece, which was subsequently disputed by the electors in Chiafalo v. Washington.

“The electors challenged their fines in state court, arguing that the Constitution gives members of the Electoral College the right to vote however they please,” Chiafalo v. Washington’s summary stated.

The Washington Superior Court ultimately rejected the electors’ claim, and the State Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decision. Lastly, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of Washington over the electors.

Dzeguze said because of the elector laws upheld by certain states, such as Colorado, decisions would essentially occur on a state-by-state basis if votes for a deceased candidate were still coming in. 

“Technically, too, the ultimate power for naming electors lies with the state government, so the legislature could try to declare the result invalid and appoint a whole new set of electors (which would come with huge risks of being seen as ‘stealing an election’),” Dzeguze said in an email interview. 

Sophomore Ramy Logan said he understands when a current president passes away, there is a line of succession that includes the vice president and speaker of the House of Representatives. However, he acknowledged that this process would become more complicated shortly before an election.

“If a candidate dies, under normal circumstances, their respective national convention would reconvene and vote in a replacement candidate,” Logan said. “Given the current conditions with COVID and mail-in ballots already being cast, it would probably be a complex process with the vice presidential nominee taking over.”

Freshman Grant Gibson said he could foresee potential chaos within the country if the current president or a presidential candidate were to pass away. However, he said it would still be likely for the vice presidential candidate to take their place. Freshmen Wyatt Morgan, Helena Urrea and Cameron Hanson also said the vice presidential candidate would potentially take the place of a candidate unable to continue running. Urrea said she would not expect to see much difference in the process, even if it did happen on or near Election Day.

Although sophomore Marlen Alcala said presidential power would be passed to the next individual in line, not much change would occur within the country or government itself.

“I believe the vice president takes office if the current president dies, so while the president is deceased, I don’t believe there would be much change because they are both from the same party and the branches of the government would still be involved to pass laws,” Alcala said.

If President Trump is reelected, but not sworn in for a second term upon passing away, Dzeguze explained the vice presidential elect — Mike Pence — would take his place. Additionally, if the president and vice president die during this process of inauguration, and before a replacement vice president was chosen, the country would be in “uncharted territory.”

“Another weird thing could be if both the president and VP were temporarily unable to serve — like they both were on a ventilator for a while — and then it became a matter of figuring out when one or both of them was no longer impaired/could return to office,” Dzeguze said.

Flagstaff resident Jarrod Holgate said past candidates from a political party’s primaries could make a reappearance, should a candidate pass away or become unfit for office prior to the general election. Although Holgate said the process would essentially follow the same guidelines as a president dying in office, he also supported the possibility of previous candidates, from the primaries, to return to the political playing field.

Other than these unprecedented situations, the basic presidential line of succession would remain intact if something were to happen to President Trump: vice president, speaker of the House, president pro tempore of the Senate, secretary of state and many more replacements thereafter, according to Brian Blodgett of the Department of Homeland Security. 

Presidential succession can be both simple and complicated based on the circumstances, Dzeguze added. Overall, the question of who becomes the next U.S. president if the current president were to die is one that involves a fair amount of chaos, regardless of the context. 

“So let’s all really hope we don’t have to deal with this possibility — that instead we get a clear result and the winning candidate takes office in January,” Dzeguze said.