What happens if a president-elect dies before inauguration?

If Joe Biden were to die before being sworn in as president, he would almost certainly be replaced by Kamala Harris.
If Joe Biden were to die before being sworn in as president, he would almost certainly be replaced by Kamala Harris.
Image: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In the nearly three months before inauguration day on Jan. 20, there are still a few more hoops for Joe Biden to jump through before taking office: the official electoral college vote on Dec. 14, followed by the congressional certification of that vote on Jan. 6.

It may seem morbid, but given that Biden, at 77, will be the oldest president-elect in history and is running in the midst of a pandemic, it’s worth clarifying what would happen if he dies before taking office.

If Biden were to die before December’s electoral college vote, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) would have the ability to name a replacement candidate and pressure the electors currently committed to Biden to support them instead. Presumably, although not necessarily, the new candidate would be Biden’s vice president Kamala Harris.

Most states have laws, upheld by the Supreme Court, that penalize or discount so-called “faithless” electors who switch their vote—so it’s likely that this DNC-selected candidate would win, although there would be sure to be plenty of legal wrangling over each state’s handling of this process. There’s also nothing stopping the DNC from simply leaving Biden’s name on the ballot and proceeding on the assumption that Harris will assume his position after the electoral college vote, although this seems less likely.

Once Biden is selected by the electoral college, he officially becomes the president-elect. If he were to die between the electoral college vote but before the early January congressional certification, members of congress have an opportunity to object to the electoral results in any state and, if both chambers agree, to switch that state’s votes to the opposing candidate. It’s pretty hard to imagine Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House speaker, agreeing to hand a state to Trump in any conceivable circumstance.

After Congressional certification and before inauguration day, the 20th amendment would kick in. It provides that “if, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the president, the president elect shall have died, the vice president elect shall become president.”

Here’s hoping that none of this becomes relevant—regardless of your choice of candidate, this election has dragged on for long enough already.

Read more of Quartz’s election coverage