What Happens if Trump or Biden Dies Before the Election?

Democracy Examined

Trump’s COVID Diagnosis Raises Transfer of Power Questions

President Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis has caused speculation regarding his fitness to serve and the prospect of a presidential candidate becoming incapacitated. In the days prior to his diagnosis, the President put himself at risk by attending several dense, maskless events, and afterwards, was criticized for his participation in a photo op on Sunday, Oct. 4.

Though reportedly 12 feet away, Democratic nominee Joe Biden, was in the vicinity of a possibly contagious Trump for 90 minutes during the first Presidential debate, sparking concern that he could have been infected. Biden has tested negative thus far, but Harvard physician and epidemiologist Michael Mina says that Biden must test negative for two weeks after the debate to be sure. 

Age is the single largest COVID risk factor, and Trump and Biden are the two oldest major party presidential nominees in history. In this context, with an election less than a month away, Americans have been left to wonder about a number of grim possibilities.

1. What would happen if Trump became unfit to serve?

President Trump could voluntarily invoke Section 3 of the 25th Amendment, temporarily passing his power to Vice President Pence. In 2002, President Bush did this before he received anesthesia for a colonoscopy.

If Trump became unfit but refused to cede power, the process would become more complicated. Section 4 of the 25th Amendment allows the vice president and a majority of the cabinet to designate the President unfit and strip his power, but if challenged, they would need a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress to uphold their judgement. This high threshold, along with being “unfit” requiring “complete incapacitation,” “really stacks the deck in the president’s favor” according to Brian Kalt, the author of Unable: The Law, Politics, and Limits of Section 4 of the 25th Amendment. 

2. What would happen if Trump or Biden were to die or become incapacitated?

Due to myriad legal ambiguities, the situation could become very messy very quickly. 

If Trump or Biden passes away before the election, the DNC and RNC each have processes for naming replacements and would likely elevate their respective vice presidential nominees. However, more than 2.2 million votes have been cast and the deadlines to change ballots in most states have passed. There are also complicated state rules restricting the candidate for whom electors can vote. Combined, this would make transferring votes quite complicated.

Western Carolina University political scientist Chris Cooper says the trickiest situation would arise if Trump or Biden becomes incapacitated after winning the election but before the Dec. 8 deadline for states to certify their electors. He says a “whole lot of litigation” would ensue, likely resulting in the Electoral College reallocating the deceased candidate’s electors to their vice presidential nominee.

If either candidate passes away after the Electoral College votes but before Congress tallies their votes, the election would go to the newly sworn-in 2021-2022 House and would likely be decided with each state’s delegation receiving one vote. 

In these sprawling hypotheticals, little would be certain except fierce contention. In the words of noted political scientist Norm Ornstein, “we have to hope that the challenges remain theoretical.”






Americans Don’t Actually Care About Democracy

When Americans are asked if they “like” democracy, the universally accepted and expected answer is “yes, of course.” However, a vanishingly small percentage of Americans actually value democracy enough to punish (i.e. withhold their vote from) a candidate who is anti-democratic in rhetoric or action, such as supporting partisan gerrymandering, encouraging voter suppression, and disrespecting the rule of law. In fact, a study from Yale University shows that only 3.5% of Americans refuse to vote for a candidate whom they may otherwise like but demonstrates anti-democratic tendencies. 

This is not only theoretical. It was borne out in the real world during the 2017 race for Montana’s only House seat. After Republican Candidate Greg Gianforte assaulted a journalist, he lost no support in heavily partisan precincts. Remarkably, his overall drop in support (3.6%)—which came almost entirely from moderate precincts—almost exactly matched the 3.5% predicted in the Yale report. 

In the Montana case study, it was Republicans who abandoned democratic norms, but this is a bipartisan phenomenon. According to the study, the Left and the Right are equally likely to support an anti-democratic co-partisan. And the further along a voter goes to either side of the political spectrum, the less likely they are to punish a candidate for anti-democratic behavior. 12.5% of “policy centrists” would punish an anti-democratic candidate, which makes them the most likely group to do so.

These numbers are shocking but not surprising. It is this abandonment of core principles that has led 36% of young Americans to approve of communism and 26% of young Americans say that “choosing leaders through free elections” is “unimportant.” There is perhaps no better demonstration of this troubling trend than the fact that more Americans have not condemned the Trump administration’s recent attacks on previously untouchable foundational norms like the peaceful transition of power. 

1. Why is democracy so unpopular?

The study notes that a central cause for the devaluation of democracy has been political partisanship. It states that “the larger the difference between the candidates’ policy platforms, the weaker the punishment for their undemocratic behavior.” In other words, as partisanship increases, respect for democratic norms decreases.

Moreover, the data show that many Americans are “partisans first and democrats only second.”

In 2016, 70% of highly-engaged Democrats said that the Republican party makes them “afraid” and 62% of highly-engaged Republicans said the same of the Democratic Party. And 58% of highly-engaged Republicans and Democrats said that the other party makes them “angry.” 

It is no surprise that in such an environment, Americans would abandon democratic principles to secure political victories. 

2. What is the remedy?

It’s complicated. The decline of local communities, organized religion and traditional institutions has left a void in people’s lives that political tribalism has attempted to fill. When political party becomes central to one’s identity, intense polarization and partisanship will inevitably follow.

To moderate this extremism, there is more than one possible solution. Better civics education seems to be one that is widely agreed upon. Thankfully, there is a successful model of state-sponsored civics education in Germany—which ori ginated in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust. Because we live in a society where democracy is the norm, it is easy to take the freedoms we enjoy for granted. Importantly, comprehensive civics education teaches that this is a foolhardy assumption. When we take freedom for granted, we are most likely to lose it.

Another potential solution to reduce partisanship is creating community across the partisan divide. This goes to the core of RDI’s mission. Braver Angels and Citizen University are two other such organizations working hard to make this vision a reality. 

It’s human nature to prioritize our own “tribe” when making political decisions. But, if we try to assume that those with whom we disagree have good intentions, we make it all the more likely that we’ll be able to stick to our core values in spite of policy


Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) Fights for Disenfranchised Voters

Among the many groups working across the country to protect voter rights, the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) stands out as an especially successful one. The FRRC works to end the disenfranchisement of people with convictions while creating a more comprehensive voter reentry system. The organization was founded by Desmond Meade, a formerly homeless citizen who lost his right to vote as a result of drug-related convictions. 

In 2018, Meade led the FRRC in its push for Amendment 4, a statewide referendum that would restore the voting rights of 1.4 million Floridians with felony convictions—10% of the Florida voting-age population. Prior to 2018, Florida was one of four states with a lifetime voter ban for convicted felons. The referendum passed, with 64.55% of the population in support, but the victory was short-lived. After some 13,000 ex-felons registered to vote, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a law in the summer of 2019 requiring convicted felons to first pay off all court-related fees and fines before regaining the right to vote. These fees and fines amount to an average of $1,000 per felon, a challenging financial hurdle for many ex-felons who are living in underprivileged communities. 

The FRRC represented ex-felons in the legal battle to invalidate this “pay-to-vote” system. But after initial success, the 11th Circuit overturned the district court’s ruling, leaving nearly 774,000 felons with court-related debt effectively disenfranchised. 

1. What has the FRRC done in response to the most recent court ruling?

In one of their biggest initiatives to date, the FRRC has raised a fund of over $20 million—with donations from major public figures like Michael Blomberg, John Legend, Lebron James, Michael Jordan, Steven Spielberg, and Ariana Grande—to help over 20,000 felons pay off their court-ordered fees and fines. The FRRC also sends canvassers directly to neighborhoods with high populations of former felons, and assists them in all aspects of the voter reentry process. 

FRRC acknowledges that a long-term solution that hits at the root of the problem remains imperative. Daniel A. Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, told the New York Times: “It’s kind of incomprehensible to think that we have to rely on the generosity of billionaires to have voting rights.” However, until system-wide change is feasible, it is important for groups like FRRC to do whatever they can to make access to the ballot more equitable. 

In a state with such a large number of electoral votes, and where the popular vote is typically very close—it was decided by a little more than 100,000 votes in 2016, and even fewer in 2000—every vote matters. Thus, the FRRC’s work extends far beyond just Florida; it will indeed have national repercussions as well.