On Thursday morning, President Donald Trump tweeted a suggestion that the United States delay the November 2020 presidential election “until people can properly, securely and safely vote.” His comment was part of his ongoing criticism of mail-in voting, a practice that many states have expanded during the coronavirus pandemic.
Although Trump’s suggestion was shot down by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, it has raised questions about whether delaying a presidential election would even be constitutional and, if so, what would need to happen first.
While it is technically possible, the power to set an election date doesn’t sit in the executive office. The Constitution gives that power to Congress, the legislative branch. The framers then placed further limitations that make postponing an election more trouble than it’s worth. In fact, the United States has never delayed a presidential election and only moved it for administrative reasons twice—both within the first 60 years of the country’s founding. And presidential elections have never been delayed due to a national crisis—not even the Civil War or the Great Depression.
Here’s what it would take to postpone an election—and why it has so little precedent in American history.
What does the Constitution say?
When the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788, it didn’t specify when presidential elections would take place, just who was in charge of it. Article II, Section 1 says: “The Congress may determine the Time of chusing [sic] the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.” This means that the president would be selected by a body of electors—known as the Electoral College—and Congress had the power to sort out when the states would choose their electors and when votes would be cast.
The first U.S. presidential election was held in January 1792, after which Congress decided to move up the deadline for electors to submit their votes to December. It then let the states choose the day they would select their electors, giving them a 34-day window. Most states ultimately held presidential elections in early November, a full two months earlier than the first election. It would remain that way for more than 50 years.
By 1845, however, Congress had begun to worry that this process provided too much time for “intrigue.” Travel and communication across the states had become easier, making it possible for states that voted earlier to unduly influence others. That year, Congress passed a law designating a single day as Election Day for the entire country: the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
Scholars hypothesize that states could postpone presidential elections, as they do have the power to determine their own process for selecting electors. But this hasn’t been tested—and states are still required by law to send their electoral votes to Congress by the fourth Wednesday in December. (There’s a better way to map voting results.)
What happens if Congress moves an election?
If Congress were to decide that the coronavirus pandemic warrants pushing back the election date, it would have to change the laws that govern the date of the general election, as well as the dates that states are expected to send their electoral votes to Congress. As the National Constitution Center points out, these changes would require the consent of both houses of Congress.
But while Congress would have latitude to move elections to an earlier date, there’s far less wiggle room for pushing them back thanks to the 20th Amendment. Ratified in 1933, this constitutional amendment specifies that the four-year terms of both the president and vice president will end at noon on January 20 following an election year—regardless of whether an election has taken place.
“There are no provisions of law permitting a president to stay in office after this date, even in the event of a national emergency, short of the ratification of a new constitutional amendment,” the Congressional Research Service stated in a March 2020 report on postponing federal elections.
Who would fill the vacancy on January 20 if an election hasn’t taken place and the Constitution hasn’t been amended? The report argues that the rules of succession would come into effect, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives—an office currently held by Democrat Nancy Pelosi—would become acting president.
Have elections been postponed before?
Trump isn’t the first to float the idea of delaying a presidential election during a national emergency. But while national events have disrupted elections, they’ve never outright cancelled or postponed them. In 1918, the U.S. went through with its midterm elections in the midst of the Spanish flu pandemic with socially-distanced campaigns and masks at the ballot box. Politics were as vigorous as ever during the Great Depression in the 1930s, and Americans have braved hurricanes, tornadoes and the resulting power outages to vote by flashlight. (Here’s how the election of 1824 permanently changed American politics.)
During the Civil War, some Republicans suggested postponing the 1864 presidential election—not because of the logistics, but because they were afraid Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t win reelection. Ultimately, the election happened, and Lincoln won in a landslide.
In an address afterward, Lincoln said that the election had been “a necessity” for upholding the country’s free government. “It has demonstrated that a people’s government can sustain a national election, in the midst of a great civil war,” he said. “Until now it has not been known to the world that this was a possibility.”
In the wake of 9/11, too, there was some speculation that the Bush administration might seek to postpone the 2004 presidential election over fears of a terrorist attack on or near Election Day. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice shut down that speculation, saying, “We’ve had elections in this country when we were at war, even when we were in civil war. And we should have the elections on time. That’s the view of the president.”
In the years since, the U.S. has faithfully held its Election Day as scheduled just as it always has, whether in the face of war, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, even pandemics.