What Happens if a Presidential Candidate Dies?

Donald Trump wearing a mask while descending the steps of a helicopter
U.S. President Donald Trump exits Marine One while arriving to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, U.S., on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. Trump will be treated for COVID-19 after being in isolation at the White House since his diagnosis, which he announced after one of his closest aides had tested positive for coronavirus infection. Photo by Oliver Contreras/dpa/Alamy Live News

The answer to the question of what happens if a president dies in office, resigns, is removed from office, or becomes too ill to serve is well-established. A presidential line of succession is dictated by the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Presidential Succession Act that was passed and is occasionally updated by Congress.

But President Trump’s recent illness with COVID-19 has raised another issue, since at this point in time he is not only the president, but also his party’s nominee on the presidential election ticket, with his name on tens of millions of ballots that have already been printed—and in many cases, already cast by voters.

What happens, then, if a presidential candidate or president-elect is suddenly unable to serve? The answer here is complicated, and it depends at what point in the election cycle such an event occurs.

  1. If a nominee were to die at this late stage of the campaign, but before Election Day, the most likely outcome is that the deceased nominee's name would stay on the ballot. At least some states have formal rules about how a deceased candidate could be replaced. However, such late-stage changes to tens of millions of ballots would pose a logistical nightmare. Ballot printing companies require months of lead time to order supplies and produce ballot in enough quantity for a presidential election year. 
  2. If a candidate who won a majority of electoral votes based on Election Day results were to die between Election Day and the meetings of the Electoral College, at which the president is actually elected, the matter would likely fall into the hands of the winning political party to direct their electors to vote for its candidate of choice.
  3. If a candidate with the most electoral votes were to die between the meetings of the Electoral College and Congress’s counting of electoral votes, which happens on Jan. 6, 2021, Congress would presumably declare the deceased president-elect to be the winner and then the vice president-elect would succeed to the presidency. It is also possible that Congress would discard these votes and, if no candidate then received a majority of votes, it would cast its own votes according to the Twelfth Amendment of the Constitution.
  4. If the President-elect were to die between Congress’s counting of electoral votes on Jan. 6, 2021 and Inauguration Day on Jan. 20, 2021, the Twentieth Amendment is clear: the vice president-elect shall become president.