Early Friday morning, President Donald Trump tested positive for COVID-19 after months of trying to convince us the virus doesn’t matter and will go away soon — even belittling Joe Biden for wearing a mask. A lot of questions are being asked right now, but the big one is: What happens if Trump dies before Election Day? Short answer? Everything is going to be a big mess. While it’s unlikely that he will die, there’s also the possibility that he would need to withdraw from the race, which would cause its own complications. The point is, a lot is up in the air. But, here’s everything we know so far.
With November 3 only 32 days away, there are, of course, many more questions swirling around what happens next. But, let’s start with the “if Trump dies or withdraws” scenario. If a presidential candidate dies or withdraws from an election, their party gets to decide on a replacement. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have rules for how to choose a new candidate in this unprecedented event. The Republican National Committee (RNC) has the authority to fill this vacancy with a majority vote of its 168 members. And then there are additional complications, like the fact that millions of ballots would have to be reprinted, 29 states have already begun mailing ballots to voters, and early voting has begun.
“What’s most likely [is] that the election would take place on time with the deceased or incapacitated candidate’s name on the ballot,” University of California Irvine law professor and voting expert Rick Hasen wrote on his Election Law Blog, “and then there would be a question if legislatures would allow presidential electors of each state to vote for someone other than the deceased candidate.”
Not every state has laws addressing this issue, which could create more chaos. Some states prohibit electors from casting ballots for anyone other than the candidate who won that state’s popular vote. This has the potential to create a court battle. “If we are unfortunate enough to have a presidential candidate die or become incapacitated this close to the election, what happens next is likely to be uncertain and messy,” Hasen told the L.A. Times. “It could leave room for political gaming as well under arcane rules of the Electoral College.”
Despite being 74 and having pre-existing conditions, Trump will almost certainly not die. While it was originally reported that he was asymptomatic, The New York Times reported this morning that he has "cold-like" symptoms. Two sources told Vanity Fair that he has a cough and fever. The Constitution’s 25th Amendment spells out the procedures under which Trump could declare himself "unable to discharge the powers and duties" of the presidency. He would have the option of temporarily transferring power to the Vice President, Mike Pence, who would “immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.” Trump could then reclaim his authority whenever he deems himself fit. Of course, it’s very hard to imagine even an incapacitated Trump ceding power of any kind.
This type of transfer of power has only happened three times since the 25th Amendment was ratified in 1967, and only very briefly each time, as The New York Times reports: When President Ronald Reagan got a colonoscopy in 1985 and turned over power to Vice President George Bush, and when President George W. Bush ceded power to Vice President Dick Cheney during his own colonoscopies in 2002 and 2007.
Trump, who has been traveling extensively throughout the COVID pandemic, plans to quarantine in the White House and has canceled his campaign stops in Florida, Wisconsin, and Arizona. His schedule on Friday has been cleared except for a phone call “on COVID-19 support to vulnerable seniors.” And he probably won’t be doing any more of the huge mask-less rallies he has been holding — at least for the immediate future. The fate of the second presidential debate on October 15 is also unclear.
A lot is uncertain right now, but Trump’s positive COVID test should not deter you from making your voting plan and voting in the election. And if this weren’t already perfectly clear: Vote for the candidate who has been behaving responsibly throughout this pandemic. That’s not Trump.