President Donald Trump has generated a political firestorm after he sent a tweet raising the possibility of delaying November’s general election.
His message – structured in the form of a question – comes after the president has spent months alleging that mail-in voting, which a growing number of states are turning to due to risks of coronavirus exposure at in-person polling places, is susceptible to fraud.
There’s little evidence of widespread illegalities in mail-in balloting, even in the states that hold their elections exclusively by post. The president, however, is suggesting that fears about the practice, and about polling-place safety, could necessitate a delay.
Such an outcome is extremely unlikely, but the coronavirus has already had a significant impact on US politics. Primary contests have been delayed or disrupted, with in-person polling places closed and absentee balloting processes thrown into doubt. Politicians have engaged in contentious fights over the electoral process in legislatures and the courts.
In November, voters are scheduled to head to the polls to select the next president, much of Congress and thousands of state-government candidates. But what could Election Day look like – or if it will even be held on schedule – is very much the subject of debate.
Could President Trump postpone the election?
A total of 15 states have delayed their presidential primaries at this point, with most pushing them back until at least June. That presents the pressing question of whether the presidential election in November itself could be delayed.
Under a law dating back to 1845, the US presidential election is slated for the Tuesday after the first Monday of November every four years – 3 November in 2020. It would take an act of Congress – approved by majorities in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the Republican-controlled Senate – to change that.
The prospect of a bipartisan legislative consensus signing off on any delay is unlikely in the extreme.
What’s more, even if the voting day were changed, the US Constitution mandates that a presidential administration only last four years. In other words, Donald Trump’s first term will expire at noon on 20 January, 2021, one way or another.
He might get another four years if he’s re-elected. He could be replaced by Democrat Joe Biden if he’s defeated. But the clock is ticking down, and a postponed vote won’t stop it.
What happens if the election is delayed?
If there hasn’t been an election before the scheduled inauguration day, the presidential line of succession kicks in. Second up is Vice-President Mike Pence, and given that his term in office also ends on that day, he’s in the same boat as the president.
Next in line is the Speaker of the House – currently Democrat Nancy Pelosi – but her two-year term is up at the end of December. The senior-most official eligible for the presidency in such a doomsday scenario would be 86-year-old Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the president pro tem of the Senate. That’s assuming Republicans still control the Senate after a third of its 100 seats are vacated because of their own term expirations.
All in all, this is much more in the realm of political suspense novels than political reality.
But could the virus disrupt the election?
While an outright change of the presidential election date is unlikely, that doesn’t mean the process isn’t at risk of significant disruption.
According to University of California Irvine Professor Richard L Hasen, an election-law expert, Trump or state governments could use their emergency powers to drastically curtail in-person voting locations.
In the recently concluded Wisconsin primary, for instance, concerns about exposure to the virus, along with a shortage of volunteer poll-workers and election supplies, led to the closure of 175 of the 180 polling places in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city.
If such a move were done with political interests in mind – perhaps by targeting an opponent’s electoral strongholds – it could have an impact on the results of an election.
Could states contest the results?
Hasen also suggests another more extraordinary, albeit unlikely, scenario. Legislatures, citing c