According to an article by the Washington Post, Senate nominee John Fetterman's (D-PA) stroke before the primaries was near-fatal. This made me wonder... if Fetterman was to unfortunately die, what would happen?

Would the Democrats hold another primary? Would the party just pick someone? What would the likely procedure be?

2 Answers 2


Various things could happen. Depending on the state and how soon before the election, a new candidate for the party could run, or the election could proceed with the deceased person's name. If they win, then the office is immediately vacant. This is the American rule. The alternative "English rule" is that the runner up automatically wins the election.

There have been several occasions when a person has won a seat in Congress posthumously. For example, Mel Carnahan was the Governor of Missouri. He ran against the incumbent senator, John Ashcroft, but died in a plane crash on October 16th.

It was judged to be too late to change the ballot papers, and so the election proceeded. Carnahan won. But as he wasn't alive, the process in Missouri allowed for the (new) Governor to appoint, and he appointed Carnahan's widow, Jean. If Carnahan had died earlier then Missouri law does allow for the parties to nominate new candidates, which they can do following their own processes.

As with most things, the election of a Senator is a matter for the state, (provided an election is held in accordance with Amd 17). There are rules determined by each state's legislature on when a ballot is "finalised" and how a candidate that dies (or is otherwise disqualified) can be replaced. However if the ballot is finalised the the election proceeds as normal, and if the deceased candidate wins, then a "vacancy" is created, and this is filled in the usual way (which varies from state to state). This is not such a rare occurrence.

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    Note that the "English rule" doesn't apply in England (or indeed, the rest of the UK). Instead, if the deceased candidate represents a party, that election is postponed to allow the party to select a new person; but if the candidate is an independent, the election goes ahead as normal. (Source Jun 4, 2022 at 9:48

It varies by state. For Pennsylvania we have Section 980 and 981 of the PENNSYLVANIA ELECTION CODE (pdf):

Section 980. Substituted Nominations by Political Bodies. -- In case of the death or withdrawal of any candidate nominated by any political body by nomination papers, the committee named in the original nomination papers may nominate a substitute in his place by filing in the proper office a substituted nomination certificate, which shall set forth the facts of the appointment and powers of the committee (naming all its members), of the death or withdrawal of the candidate and of the action of the committee thereon, giving the name, residence and occupation of the candidate substituted thereby, and the truth of these facts shall be verified by the affidavit annexed to the certificate of at least two members of the committee.

Note: "political body" refers to the recognized parties in Pennsylvania. For Pennsylvania this is the Democratic, Green, Libertarian, and Republican parties.

So it would be up to the Pennsylvania Democratic Party to choose a replacement candidate. This could be a "smoke filled room" type affair, though presumably they could get input from registered democrats in the state through informal means. It's also possible the Pennsylvania Democratic Party has pre-established procedures for what happens (eg: the second place primary candidate takes their place).

However, there is a time limit for this process:

Section 981. Time for Filing Substituted Nomination Certificates. --(a) Substituted nomination certificates to fill vacancies caused by the withdrawal of candidates nominated at primaries or by nomination papers shall be filed with the Secretary of the Commonwealth or proper county board of elections, as the case may be, at least seventy-five (75) days before the day of the general or municipal election

Assuming I counted right, that would mean the replacement would need to happen before Aug 25. Although I don't have a citation on hand, if the death to happen after that date his name would stay on the ballot. In that case, if he were to still win*, a special election would follow the November general election.

*Dead people occasionally win elections -- for example it happened to George W. Bush's Attorney General John Ashcroft -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2000_United_States_Senate_election_in_Missouri

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    States generally require a candidate who dies less than 75 or so days (I've checked several, but not Alaska or Hawaii) to remain on the ballot. It takes time to print paper ballots, which are used everywhere for mail-in ballots, and those mail-in ballots must be mailed out in time for overseas voters to receive them, fill them out, and return them in time to be counted. Jun 4, 2022 at 0:38

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