This sort of builds up on this and this previous question. Both of them ask about if the President can block the transfer of their office to a successor.

In response to the current Coronavirus pandemic, many states are encouraging people to use “social distancing” methods and canceling large public events to prevent the spread of the disease. With large numbers of people using the same voting booths and voting machines, in-person voting seems like it could provide an effective vector for the spread of the disease, and if the pandemic continues to get worse it’s possible to imagine in-person voting being significantly disrupted.

In this situation, what would happen if the coronavirus (or another pandemic) significantly disrupted in-person voting for the Presidential election? Would the election be delayed, or are there mechanisms to enforce a change in voting methods? In this kind of hypothetical situation, how would the successor of the U.S. President be (s)elected?

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    The US has held presidential elections, on schedule, during a civil war and a world war. The election of 1918 went ahead despite the influenza epidemic. Why do you think the election would have to be delayed rather than those states that do not already do so allowing mail in ballots and voters being encouraged to use them? Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 8:51
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    @PatriciaShanahan But would those states actually allow mail-in ballots and invest the kind of money on education and infrastructure that it would take to make that change to full mail-in voting? It seems like a political question whether there is a way to mandate those changes, or whether it would be left up to individual states.
    – divibisan
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 15:30

1 Answer 1


First, this has never really happened in the United States. In extreme emergencies and national disasters, elections have been held a few days late, but never suspended (unlike, for example, the United Kingdom, that suspended elections during World War II). Elections were also not canceled during the Civil War, or as a result of the War of 1812 (during which the U.S. capitol was burned to the ground by foreign military forces).

For example, elections were not prevented from being conducted by the Spanish flu of 1918 which was in all respects deadlier and more contagious than the coronavirus, despite the fact that the technology available for a response in 1918 was less advanced.

Realistically, you would need a disease that is catastrophic on the scale of the Black Plague in medieval Europe (that killed a third to a half of the population in many places), and not merely something like the coronavirus (with a 2% mortality rate), to take out the electoral process in the U.S.

A situation like that would involve the collapse of the entire regime and government, and would send us into uncharted waters.

Second, election laws can be changed quite quickly in an emergency. One could, for example, shift as Colorado has, to a system of near complete all mail in ballots, to reduce the amount of in person interactions that were needed.

The U.S. Constitution does not provide the option of not conducting an election. In the absence of an election, elected offices become vacant and the succession provisions of the law which usually kick in when there is a death during someone's term of office would kick in. U.S. Senate vacancies can be filled in most states by Governors on a temporary basis. U.S. House seats that go vacant must be filled in vacancy elections. There is a line of succession to the Presidency defined by law involving a few key Congressional leaders and the cabinet.

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    The United States didn't have extensive quarantines during the 1918 flu pandemic. Given what we've seen in other countries like China during this outbreak, a quarantine could happen in 2020 and that would seriously affect voter turnout. Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 20:10
  • Re elections not being held in the UK during WW2 - do bear in mind that Britain was a bit closer to the action that the US was. Holding a general election in 1940 would have simply been an invitation to the Luftwaffe to come to the party.
    – WS2
    Commented Apr 9, 2020 at 7:55

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