Since You Asked

If a presidential candidate dies between the election and Inauguration Day some two months later, does the vice president-elect automatically become president?

— Larry S., Jacksonville

In a word, Larry, yes.

The details are spelled out in the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which became the law of the land in 1933. Besides clarifying this important detail in presidential succession, the 20th Amendment changed the date when a newly elected president takes office from March 4 to Jan. 20. It also set Jan. 3 as the day when the terms of newly elected senators and representatives begin.

Section 3 addresses your question directly, and we quote: "If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the President, the President elect shall have died, the Vice President elect shall become President."

It doesn't get any clearer than that.

The amendment was proposed to reduce the time between the November election and when the president-elect actually takes office. The old four-month lag time was a relic from America's early days, when it could take weeks to travel to Washington and months to clean up one's affairs. In the modern world, the long lag time had the effect of delaying government for the four months between the election during the first week in November and March 4.

The long delay had been a problem for Abraham Lincoln at the beginning of his term, when the Southern states were leaving the Union. It was also a problem for Franklin Roosevelt, elected to replace Herbert Hoover in the depths of the Great Depression.

Congress approved the proposed amendment on March 3, 1932, and just 10 months later, on Jan. 23, 1933, the Utah Legislature became the 39th state to approve it, fulfilling the requirement that three-fourths of the state legislatures must approve an amendment to make it part of the Constitution.

The amendment also eliminated the "lame duck" sessions of Congress that were required by law to convene in December, soon after the November election. Before the amendment, those sessions of Congress were often filled with senators and representatives who had been voted out of office in November but continued to serve until March.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.

Share This Story