President Trump tweeted the possibility of delaying the US general elections. He doesn't have the ability to delay the election on his own. Here's what the Constitution says on the matter:

The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.

Imagine that the election somehow were delayed past the inauguration date. The President's term (and the term of the Vice President and the entire Cabinet) end on January 20 no matter what. Under the order of succession, the next person to become president would be the Speaker of the House. But her term also ends in January (EDITED).

There are a few things I don't understand in this situation. Would California be able to hold an election even if other elections were delayed? Would the governor of California appoint a replacement (or reappoint Speaker Pelosi)? Could the House change the rules to allow the speakership to continue after the election?


2 Answers 2


Under the order of succession, the next person to become president would be the Speaker of the House. But her term ends at the same time as the President and Vice President.

Most of your understanding is correct, but this line is wrong, and that's where the answers you're looking for come from.

The 20th amendment says:

Section 1 The terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3d day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.

Section 2 The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day.

These sections mean that the new Congress takes office 17 days before the President leaves office. Thus, by the time the presidency was vacated and needed to follow the line of succession, there would be a Speaker of the [new] House to take the role. Presumably, if Democrats keep the majority, this would be Speaker Pelosi. But if she stepped aside or was replaced (by either a Republican majority or by the Democratic Representatives choosing someone else) then whoever that was would take office.

Admittedly, if the election isn't held, there is some question about who would comprise the new Congress. The old Congress' term definitively ends on the 3rd, and every Representative has to be reelected every two years. So if no elections are held, then there are no Representatives (and only 2/3 of the Senators). And unlike Senators, there is no process for a state to appoint a replacement if the office is vacated. There can be elections to fill the empty seat, but only once it's actually empty, so they couldn't be held until the 3rd. (Although knowing that it's coming, a state's Governor could say "get ready for elections on the 3rd", but not officially issue the writ for the election until then.)

So whichever states held their emergency elections in time would send the Representatives who would choose the Speaker who (in turn, on the 20th) would act as President.

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    Something notable is that the Speaker does not have to be an actual member of Congress, apparently. Jul 30, 2020 at 15:35
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    No, not really. It jumped out at me reading the answer, and they also discussed it in the comments - the Speaker would, surely, be considered an "elected officer." Jul 30, 2020 at 19:06
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    States don't get the choose the date of elections for President, Representatives, or Senators. Those are set by Federal statute: 2 USC §7 sets the date for Represenatives, 2 USC §1 says Senators are elected at the same time as Representatives, 3 USC §1 sets the date for electors for President (its the same day as 2 USC §7). States do not have the power to override those dates.
    – asgallant
    Jul 30, 2020 at 23:09
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    I'd be foolish to try and argue that ANYTHING associated with would be easy, amiable or straightforward. Jul 31, 2020 at 13:17
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    @ArgentiApparatus - No, the Senate only gets to choose between the two top candidates for VP. If no votes are cast, there are (officially) no top candidates. After that, the position goes to the Speaker of the House, then the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and then down the list.
    – Bobson
    Jul 31, 2020 at 16:02

While I make no claim to being a Constitutional lawyer, under a simple reading of the law it seems that if elections weren't held until after January 3rd (or whenever their term ends), there would BE no House of Representatives, thus the present Speaker of the House (Pelosi) couldn't become President.

Since the Senate is a continuing body (about 1/3 of Senators being elected every two years), the president pro tempore of the Senate would become acting president. However, no laws could be passed, since that requires a vote of both houses. That includes appropriating money to run all government agencies. So the US government would have effectively voted itself out of existence :-)

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    On your last point (and I know all of this is a bit whimsical speculation, but to be pedantic), the government fiscal year is October. IF the current government agrees to a budget, the appropriations are there until September 30, 2021. Of course if they just agree on a short-term continuing resolution that expires on January 3 or January 20...
    – Damila
    Jul 30, 2020 at 17:13
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    Note that it is unlikely that all states would delay elections until January. Many states would still elect their members of Congress before the end of the year.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 31, 2020 at 1:56
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    @HotLicks: Counternote: under the Constitution the House requires a majority of members to be present to do business, which presumably includes electing a Speaker. So it's not necessary for all states to delay their elections to end up in this scenario — just a sufficiently large number of them to account for half of the representatives. Jul 31, 2020 at 15:41
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    @Barmar This document implies it is the majority of filled seats: crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/RL/98-988 Jul 31, 2020 at 16:05
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    @HotLicks They can't unless Congress changes the law to allow them to. The Constitution explicitly gives Congress the power to set override states on setting the times and places of elections for Congress and Congress has done so (2 USC 7.) Any elections conducted in violation of this would be illegal and their results null. Of course, for the same reason, delaying the election in the first place would also require an act of Congress.
    – reirab
    Jul 31, 2020 at 18:39

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