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In most countries, there is usually a gap between election day and the time when the elected official assumes office.

Example:

  • In the United States, the President is elected in November but does not assume office until January.
  • In Germany, the Bundestag is usually elected around September, but its term does not begin until the newly elected Bundestag assembles for the first time.

Question:

  1. What is the point of this gap exactly?
  2. Can't they just take office as soon as the result is announced?
  3. Doesn't this gap create a dangerous situation if the country is hit by a crisis before the newly elected official takes over? (Since the outgoing official no longer has a mandate.)
  • Previously: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/826/… (does not answer the Germany part) – user3067860 Oct 8 at 10:54
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    "In the United States, the President is elected in November but does not assume office until January." – This is wrong. The President is elected on the first Monday following the second Wednesday in December. This year that is going to be December, 14th. – Jörg W Mittag Oct 8 at 10:58
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    @JörgWMittag If we're going to be pedantic, then the President is not elected until Congress meets in January to count the votes from the Electoral College. The point is that the eventual outcome of this process is usually known shortly after the general election in November. – Nobody Oct 8 at 12:19
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    An unmentioned reason: Some states require mail-in ballots merely to be sent by voting day (e.g. Alaska, California, etc). Some time needs to be given for them to be received (e.g. California gives 17 days). As such, the result of the election isn't necessarily known on election day. Source: Voting By Mail? Here Are the Deadlines in Every U.S. State (Time Magazine) – ikegami Oct 8 at 16:22
  • Some of this is discussed in the answers of this related question: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/57457/… – bta Oct 8 at 23:37
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There are two obvious reasons. I'll refer to the US specifically, but I would imagine other countries are fairly similar.

First, the historic. Before modern transport & communications, the election process could take weeks or months. California became a US state in 1850, when it could take more than four weeks to travel from there to Washington (or before the Pony Express & telegraph, even send a message). https://www.aei.org/carpe-diem/maps-of-the-day-travel-times-from-nyc-in-1800-1830-1857-and-1930/ Allowing some preparation time, newly elected Senators & Representatives couldn't realistically get to Washington before January following the election. (Indeed, until the 1930s, the new administration didn't take office until March.)

The second reason is that it takes time to organize a transition. Among other things, a new administration has to find & vet people to take cabinet posts* and other appointed offices, hire staff, and physically move. (It has taken me a month or more to do a move after buying a new house in the same town.) Newly-elected Senators & Representatives face similar problems: moving to Washington, finding housing, hiring staff, &c.

*The British & others seem to handle this by the opposition parties having "shadow cabinets" already in place when they're not in power: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shadow_Cabinet

PS: Further to your suggestion that the gap would potentially create a dangerous situation, at least in the US it's historically been the case that outgoing & incoming administrations would work together. (The current situation, with the incumbent openly suggesting that he won't accept the results of the election if he loses, is pretty well unprecedented.) Throwing a new government into the middle of a crisis would seem even more dangerous.

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    The shadow cabinet system makes sense when government ministers are also members of parliament. It wouldn't be workable under the US with its greater separation of powers. – phoog Oct 8 at 3:31
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    The second reason is true for the cabinet but isn't really needed for a parliament/congress. Newly elected officials can stay in hotels or other temporary accommodation. In many parliamentary systems, the new parliament starts pretty much as soon as the election results are officially confirmed (maybe a week or so after the election), despite a new government formation taking weeks or months (with the old one remaining as a caretaker). – gerrit Oct 8 at 7:17
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    While a shadow cabinet may be useful when picking ministers for the new government, it is certainly not guaranteed that all of the shadow cabinet would become ministers (and even less in their respective positions) if the opposition party won the elections, and it would not make sense to prepare shadow cabinets four years in advance. The objective of the shadow cabinet is to win the next elections, not to be in stand-by to take over government. – SJuan76 Oct 8 at 8:10
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    @phoog The main issue that I would see in the USA is not "greater separation of powers" but weaker party structures. With the presidential candidate being unknown until the end of the primaries, there is no input from the candidate in relation to the pickings and it is difficult to justify an effort to develop an alternate set of policies that the candidate may just chose to ignore. – SJuan76 Oct 8 at 8:19
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    @SJuan76 but why is the presidential candidate unknown until the end of the primaries? Because the president is not a member of the legislature as is the prime minister in most parliamentary systems, but is instead elected separately. This difference is a direct result of the desire for greater separation of powers. – phoog Oct 8 at 9:17
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There are two basic reasons for the 'lame-duck' period between the date new officials are elected and the date they take office:

  • To allow election results to be contested should evidence of fraud or malfeasance arise
  • To ensure an orderly transition of power, by giving new officials time to move residences and acclimate themselves to the duties and powers of the office

In other words, elections and changes in administration are not like toggle-switches, where a simple flick of a finger sends off one group and ushers in another. Ballots take time to be processed, cross-checked, counted, and assessed; new officials need time to reorganize their lives and settle in to their new positions. In an ideal political world the outgoing official would use part of his lame-duck period to guide and orient the incoming official; in our less than ideal world, incoming officials usually have 'shadow' offices where they receive all the information the outgoing official receives so that they can get a grasp on the nature of the job before beginning it in earnest. But in any case, this 'orientation' process is essential to keep a certain degree of continuity across administrations.

We don't need to worry too much about sudden crises during the lame-duck period. Most of the actual work of governance is carried out by civil service workers in various departments under the elected official; these people are largely unaffected by transitions of power, and will carry on regardless. Even if an outgoing leader were to abandon his position entirely (give up on his job and spend the entire lame-duck period golfing, say), the various department chiefs will still respond to any crisis as they normally would, bridging the gap until the new elected official is formally instated. Elected officials are primarily agenda-setters. They aren't of much use in crises except as a public focus, to reassure people that things are being done, to coordinate between departments, and to clear the way for departments to do what the departments were going to do regardless.

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Looking at it from the United States side I think it is for a few reasons. First and most importantly people are elected for a set term in office if someone was replaced as soon as the election was confirmed that would mean an officer holder could serve a longer or shorter term depending on how long it takes to confirm the vote each cycle. This is important because it could lead to some problems in how fast an election gets confirmed. A party that is in power but expected to lose it in the election could delay the confirmation in order to stay in power longer. However if it was expected to be a close race and they are winning they could hurry up the confirmation in order to give less time to challenge it.

Secondly it has to do with how long it took for information and people to travel in the past. As was pointed out in another answer it could take 2-4 weeks for information/people to travel between areas in the country and that means an election can be confirmed but it is not possible for the newly elected official to assume the office on that date as it might take time for them to get ready to assume it.

Thirdly is just that it takes time for there to be an orderly transition of power and that isn't something you want to rush just because we are able to determine the winner quickly. For example if the person in office is expected to win but there is an upset the transition might not be planned at all if it has to happen at the same time.

Overall I think the big reason why there is a delay is to ensure every elected official serves a full term and it is harder to game how fast the confirmation happens to change how long you serve for.

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Elected officials who continue to exercise power after an election causing someone else to win the offices in question is called a "lame duck".

In parliamentary systems, there is usually an unwritten convention that lame duck officials act only in a care taking and emergency role, and don't make major decisions or start new initiatives. They are a "caretaker government." This norm mitigates the harm potentially caused by a delay in newly elected officials taking office. In the interim, the big activity in these systems is negotiating over who the new prime minister, cabinet and majority coalition partners will be (a truly extreme recent example of delays on this basis is Belgium from June 13, 2010 to December 6, 2011).

The existence of a constitutional monarchy can also reduce the incentive for a caretaker government to "cheat" because there is an "adult in the room" who might intervene or take emergency action in an interim period, in the form of the monarch, even though a monarch has a mostly symbolic role (in other systems, the President is often an elected substitute symbolic monarch who is present for many of the same reasons).

This norm is not so fully entrenched in the U.S. national political system (or at the state level in most U.S. states). In the U.S. basic logistics were the main reason for the delay and the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution moved up the starting dates for each session of Congress and Presidential term after an election in 1933.

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In Germany, the Bundestag is usually elected around September, but its term does not begin until the newly elected Bundestag assembles for the first time.

This seems true by definition. Legislators typically don't have any sort of power or responsibilities unless that legislative body is in session. I'm not sure what practical benefit you would have by starting your term before that.

In the United States, the President is elected in November but does not assume office until January.

What most people don't realize is that a Presidential transition is not just one job turning over. There are 3,000-6,000 (depending on what source you read) other appointed positions that turn over as well. The incoming President has to appoint someone for all of those positions. Those positions all have to go through background checks, security clearance processes, and in many cases, formal approval processes in the Senate, plus get briefed by the outgoing administration on a wide range of ongoing concerns. You also have to give the outgoing administration time to wind down and move out. It's frankly quite amazing that all of this can get done in the several-week window that incoming administrations have (doubly so with the Christmas and New Years holidays thrown in the middle). There's no practical way for this large of a transition to happen immediately.

Doesn't this gap create a dangerous situation if the country is hit by a crisis before the newly elected official takes over? (Since the outgoing official no longer has a mandate.)

In the US at least, there is no "gap". The outgoing official's term/mandate is defined as lasting until the next inauguration day. If something happens between the election and inauguration, the currently-serving officials would handle it, just as if the problem happened before the election.

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  • "Legislators typically don't have any sort of power or responsibilities unless that legislative body is in session." This is usually not true. Typically there are committee activities and constituent service activities that continue even when a legislative body is not in session. – ohwilleke Oct 10 at 1:12

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