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What if the U.S. president and vice president-elect die before being sworn in?

Dear Cecil:

What would happen if a president-elect and his running mate both left this vale of tears before they were sworn in? Since they wouldn't have selected a cabinet yet, would captaincy of the ship of state go to the new speaker of the house? Would we get to vote again? Also, is the Ronald Reagan the oldest man ever elected to a first-term presidency? Is he the least educated man of this century to be elected president?

Al L., Baltimore

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Since I have a hard time dealing with abstractions, let’s use as an example the demise of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. (Note to Teeming Millions: this was written a while ago.) If the president-elect, the veep-elect, or both die before the electoral college meets, there’s no problem, because the college is theoretically an independent body that can vote for anybody it wants to.

In fact, something like this situation has already come up. In 1872 the Democratic presidential nominee, Horace Greeley, died between the popular vote and the meeting of the electoral college. The Democratic electors thus had nobody to vote for, and since nobody really cared because Greeley had lost the election anyway, they got to vote for whomever they wanted. Consequently their votes were split among four now-forgotten politicians. (Three Georgia electors tried to vote for Greeley — Georgians are used to voting for stiffs — but Congress refused to count their ballots.)

What would probably have happened if Reagan had died would be that the Republican National Committee would have gotten together and nominated a new candidate, whom the electors, being mostly loyal party functionaries, would likely then elect without further ado.

If Ronnie had passed into the Great Void after the electoral college vote, but George didn’t, still no problem. The 20th Amendment provides that the vice-president assumes the office. If both lads had joined the choir, though, we’d have had trouble. The 20th Amendment says “Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a President elect nor a Vice President shall have qualified” (one of the qualifications for office presumably being that you’re still breathing when you take the oath), but as far as I can tell Congress has never gotten around to so providing.

Under ordinary circumstances — your run-of-the-mill emergencies, as it were — the succession passes from president to vice-president to speaker of the house to president pro tempore of the Senate. So some believe that when Carter’s term expired at noon on January 20th, the presidency would rightfully have gone to Tip O’Neill (O’Neill’s term, according to the Constitution, began on January 3).

Others, pointing out that O’Neill is a Democrat and that the will of the people would thus have been thwarted, suggest that it would have been time for an uncharacteristic display of statesmanship on the part of the nation’s leaders, who probably have cooked up some scheme to permit another Republican to be chosen. In view of the delicacy of the situation, it’s unlikely anyone would want to go to the trouble of holding another presidential election.

Some may think improvisations of this sort are a pretty casual way to run a country, but equally strange things have happened before. History buffs will recall the case of David Rice Atchison, who may or may not have been the 12th president of the United States for a total of one day. At midnight on Saturday, March 3, 1849, outgoing president James Polk’s term expired, but incoming president Zachary Taylor refused to be sworn in on the Sabbath and put the ceremony off until Monday, March 5 — which meant nobody was president on Sunday, at least officially.

Atchison was president pro tempore of the Senate then, and under the law in force at the time the succession would have devolved upon him, but he wasn’t sworn in, he didn’t do anything presidential (I believe he took a nap), and nobody to this day is really sure if he was president or not. It’s this kind of thing that makes you wonder how the country has gotten this far without somebody conspiring to sell it to the gypsies.

As it turned out, of course, Reagan did survive until January 20, 1981 (and well beyond), and was in fact the oldest president inaugurated for a first term. (That would have changed had Bob Dole been elected President.) He wasn’t the least educated president of the century, though. President Truman, for one, had only a couple years of night courses at Kansas City Law School, while Reagan received a bachelor’s degree at Eureka College.

Cecil Adams

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