24

In the hypothetical case that every member of the government (president and vice president included) wanted to call an early election, replacing the sitting president and vice president, would they be allowed to?

  • 6
    Notably, unlike the UK which suspended elections during WWII, the US has never failed to hold an election every two years for federal office (although Union govt elections were suspended in the Confederate states where Confederate election were held instead, until the states were readmitted to the union). – ohwilleke Mar 19 '18 at 18:26
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    @RonJohn The U.S. did not recognize the succession as valid and did not treat the claim that they were a separate country as legitimate. This position was the reason for the conduct of the Civil War and is now a powerful non-judicial constitutional precedent in the U.S. Therefore, in the eyes of the winners of the Civil War, Union government elections were suspended. – ohwilleke Mar 20 '18 at 0:36
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    @RonJohn The question calls for an interpretation of the U.S. Constitution so the U.S. interpretation of the situation prevails. If we were called upon to interpret the constitution of the CSA this analysis wouldn't be valid. But, nobody cares what the CSA constitution means any more because the CSA no longer exists because it was defeated in the Civil War. – ohwilleke Mar 20 '18 at 0:43
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    @ohwilleke if the US position is that the confederate states did not secede, then how were those states "readmitted"? – phoog Mar 20 '18 at 13:01
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    @phoog As far as I can see, they weren't readmitted to the Union; their representatives were readmitted to Congress. – David Richerby Mar 20 '18 at 19:00
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Short answer: No the constitution doesn't expect or allow for this.

But you ask for a hypothetical case in which (for some unspecified reason) Congress, the Vice President and the President wish to collude to effect an early election. So... with some interpretation of the constitution, and assuming everyone wants to play ball. The president and the vice president resigning in turn could allow the president to appoint any qualified person. If the Congress and the president want to hold an early election, the president could use this implicit power to appoint the president-elect

  1. Congress instructs the states to appoint electors, who select a president elect

  2. The Vice president resigns. The president can't fire the VP, but the VP can resign.

  3. The President, with the consent of the senate, appoints the president elect as new Vice president.

  4. The President resigns. The newly appointed VP becomes president.

The ability of a president to nominate a vice president can allow someone to become the president without being on the winning ticket of an election (This is roughly how President Ford came to power, despite never being elected: VP Agnew resigned. Ford was appointed, Nixon Resigned. Ford becomes president. Although of course Agnew and Nixon both resigned in disgrace after separate scandals - tax evasion and obstruction of justice respectively)

If the President and vice president could collude to nominate a successor for the remainder of their term, with the help of Congress they could, in effect, hold early elections.

Congress can decide the date of the presidential election. It would be possible for Congress to hold the election at any time, even in the middle of a president's term. Then following the Vice President resigns and for the President to appoint the president-elect as their VP, then the President resigns.

The effect is that the President-Elect has become president early, and gets to be President for the remainder of the term, plus the following term, for which they have already been elected.

Although this satisfies the letter of the constitution, it goes against its spirit, and of course this requires all parts of the government to collude. And there is no reason for a sitting president to do this.

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    Congress can set the date of the election, but not the day at which the newly-elected person's term begins. That's set by the 20th Amendment: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – jamesqf Mar 19 '18 at 18:06
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    That's true. But if the president and vp collude, by resigning in turn the president appoints the president elect as Vice president, and then resigns. So the president elect becomes the president. This is all ridiculous as it requires the president and vice president to collude in their own overthrow. But that is what the OP asks us to suppose. (See the short answer) – James K Mar 19 '18 at 18:21
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    You imply that Ford became President due to some deal by which Agnew agreed to step aside so that Nixon could choose his successor and then resign. That isn't what happened at all. Agnew resigned because he'd been accused of corruption and pled no contest to tax evasion. Ford was appointed two months later, and it was another eight months before Nixon resigned and Ford became President. – David Richerby Mar 19 '18 at 22:17
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    How is any of this an "early election"? There's no election at all, just appointments with Senate approval. – Barmar Mar 20 '18 at 0:28
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    @phoog So the "election" is actually an unofficial straw poll, which would advise the President on who to appoint as VP, in preparation for the resignation. Said reality star would probably just do it on Twitter. – Barmar Mar 20 '18 at 14:40
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If the president and vice president both want to replace themselves, they do not need the cooperation of Congress; they can just resign.

But there is no mechanism for calling elections to replace them in such a case; no matter how they leave office, the president would be replaced according to the well established line of succession, and the new president would appoint a vice president subject to confirmation by both houses of congress.

The only mechanism that exists for calling early elections is the mechanism of constitutional amendment as specified in Article Five. This requires agreement of at least three quarters of the states, so it perhaps does not qualify as an affirmative answer to your question.

13

According to Wikipedia, a very similar scenario as JamesK answer almost happened:

In his book The Shadow Presidents, which he published in 1979, Michael Medved describes a situation that arose prior to the 1916 election, when the First World War was raging in Europe. In view of the contemporary international turmoil, President Woodrow Wilson thought that if he lost the election it would be better for his opponent to begin his administration straight away, instead of waiting through the lame duck period, which at that time had a duration of almost four months. President Wilson and his aides formed a plan to exploit the rule of succession so that his rival Charles Evans Hughes could take over the presidency as soon as the result of the election was clear. The plan was that Wilson would appoint Hughes to the post of Secretary of State. Wilson and his Vice President Thomas R. Marshall would then resign, and as the Secretary of State was at that time designated next in line of succession, Hughes would become president immediately. As it happened, President Wilson won re-election, so the plan was never put into action.

(I would put this in a comment but I can't because I haven't enough rep yet)

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    Note that since 1916 the 20th Ammendment moved the transition date back, getting rid of the basic problem, and the 25th changed presidential succession. So the stuff in the quote that "almost happened" would not and could not happen that way today. – T.E.D. Mar 21 '18 at 13:09
  • This should be an answer, not a comment. – WBT Mar 21 '18 at 17:39
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I don't think so, at least for the president and the vice president.

For congress (?) and senate (?), there are early elections (for example, see recent elections in Pennsylvania)

If both the president and the vice president are impeached at the same time, there are rules regarding who will succeed.

See Line of succession

(edit), There is also a form of referendum (Recall Election ), but it is mostly at local and state level.

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    The special elections to fill vacant seats in congress are fundamentally different from early general elections in a parliamentary system, in which every seat in the affected house is contested. It would be interesting to consider what might happen if the entire US House of Representatives and/or Senate were to resign, but that seems exceedingly unlikely ever to happen. – phoog Mar 19 '18 at 13:47
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    Also, the rules on replacing Senators vary from state to state. Some call special elections (what would be called a "by-election" in Britain), others allow the Governor to appoint one until the next general election: ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/… – jamesqf Mar 19 '18 at 18:01
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    Recall election aren't just "mostly" at a local and state level, they are entirely at a local and state level. Members of the U.S. House of Representative, of the U.S. Senate, the President and the Vice President cannot be recalled by the voters, only by impeachment in the case of the President and Vice President, the 25th Amendment in the case of the President, and expulsion by their respective chambers in the case of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. – ohwilleke Mar 19 '18 at 18:33
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    The probability of that happening is very slim, the only time all the cabinets members are all at the same place is at the state of the union, and there is a designated survivor en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Designated_survivor – Max Mar 19 '18 at 19:21
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    @Keith McClary: About the only way that could happen, and happen quickly enough that those eliminated from the succession wouldn't be replaced, would involve the explosion of numerous nuclear devices. In which case we'd have other things to worry about :-) – jamesqf Mar 19 '18 at 20:09
1

Not really. As per the US Constitution, US Presidential terms last 4 years. There is no provision for shortening or lengthening them. US politics is essentially governed by immutable cycles of 2, 4, and 6 years (House, President, and Senate respectively).

Technically, it is up to Congress to set the election date, so I suppose they could pass a law to have it happen earlier for an upcoming term, but that wouldn't change the length of the term, just the length of the "lame duck" period for the current term.

It might be instructive to look at what happened the only time there was a vacancy under the current rules (after the 25th Amendment changed succession in 1967).


During the 1973-1976 term both the VPOTUS and POTUS resigned in disgrace. Under the (current) succession rules, the new VP was selected by the POTUS, and confirmed by the Senate (much like is done with Supreme Court nominees). Due to that "confirmation" requirement, the Democratic Senate had a lot of power in the process, and reportedly informed the POTUS that the only Republican they would accept was the current House Minority leader, Gerald Ford.

Less than a year later the POTUS himself was forced to resign. Under constitutional rules, that made the sitting VP President. This meant yet another VPOTUS had to be nominated. Which is how the moderate Republican Nelson Rockefeller got to be VP.


In today's partisan environment, it would be easy to imagine a similar circumstance where an opposite-party Senate might refuse to consider any VPOTUS nominee at all, as the last Republican Congress did with the Merrick Garland nomination. In that case, were the POTUS also forced to resign (as Nixon was), the Speaker of the House becomes POTUS. That would probably be the current minority leader Nancy Pelosi (although she was challenged for the top leadership position in two of the last three Congresses, so it isn't a shoo-in).

As a very theoretical example, say the Democratic party takes over control of both houses of Congress in 2019 (highly unlikely on the Senate side, but we're being hypothetical here). The new Speaker would most likely be Democrat Nancy Pelosi. Lets further say they manage to use that control to either impeach or force to resign under threat of same both POTUS and VPOTUS (Mike Pence), without confirming any choice for VP in between the two. In this case the Democratic Speaker of the House would become President (until the 2020 election, the campaign for which will be well underway by the time all this political maneuvering reaches fruition).

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No, because Early Elections are a feature of the Parliamentary System, and are called when the party in power loses a Vote of No Confidence. (There could be other reasons, but that's the usual reason).

The USA runs on the Presidential System with fixed elections. No matter how unpopular a President or Congressman is, he or she is there (barring impeachment, resignation, death, etc) for the whole term of office.

  • There's no reason you couldn't have a presidential system with early elections. And the usual reason for early elections in the UK, at least, was that, until recently, the government was free to choose when the election was, for any reason, as long as it was within five years of the previous one. The Prime Minister losing the confidence of the House is very rare. – David Richerby Mar 20 '18 at 18:51
  • @DavidRicherby what would be the point? And that was the usual reason, but not now. – RonJohn Mar 20 '18 at 20:25
  • What would be the point of what? – David Richerby Mar 20 '18 at 20:26
  • @DavidRicherby "There's no reason you couldn't have a presidential system with early elections. What would be the point? – RonJohn Mar 20 '18 at 20:28
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    No, the defining characteristic of the presidential system is having a president as head of state, whereas the defining characteristic of the parliamentary system is the sovereignty of parliament. That's why they're called "presidential system" and "parliamentary system" rather than "fixed-term system" and "variable-term system". – David Richerby Mar 20 '18 at 20:44

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