Can the General Election Be Postponed?

By Richard Dahl on July 31, 2020

On the morning of July 30, President Trump finally came out and said it.

He thinks that perhaps the November General Election should be delayed.

“With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history," he tweeted. “It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???"

Trump's suggestion was probably not entirely surprising to Democrats, who have long suspected he'd be seeking to stoke advance fears about a “rigged election."

But, since he did raise the issue, maybe it's time to review what would have to transpire before a general election could be delayed.

Roadblocks to Attempted Delays

First, it's important to point out that no general election in the U.S. has ever been delayed – not even in 1918, when the nation was in the throes of a crippling pandemic much like today.

Second, the president doesn't have the power to order a postponement. (Trump is apparently aware of this and has never claimed that he does.)

Third, it would require an act of Congress to move the date back. But even then, Congress would face difficult roadblocks. The date of the federal election and the date when the Electoral College casts its votes are set in federal law – this year those dates are Nov. 3 and Dec. 14, and it would require an act of Congress to move those dates. While the Republican-controlled Senate might be in favor, the Democrat-controlled House almost certainly would not.

Meanwhile, even on the remote chance that the House would agree to move the dates, the biggest roadblock would be looming in the near future: The U.S. Constitution states that at noon on Jan. 20, the term of the current president must end. Getting around that edict would require a constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority of both the House and the Senate. Simply put: This is extremely unlikely.

But What If We Are Roiled in Chaos?

While all these rules seem clear, it also seems evident that 2020 is unfolding in an unprecedently unpredictable fashion. So, who knows for sure?

A big influx of mail ballots could overwhelm the U.S. Postal Service – and that's if the financially strapped U.S. Postal Service even exists beyond September, the date when it says it will run out of money without governmental assistance. Voters who apply for the ballots may not receive them in time. Some states require that ballots not received by Election Day must be rejected.

On July 29, the nonpartisan organization MapLight released a report, “Election in Peril," that pointed out some other possible troubling scenarios:

  • Mail ballots likely won't be counted as quickly as votes cast at polling places, causing delays that could lead to false claims of victory by some candidates, which could undermine the legitimacy of the election.
  • A dispute over state election results could mean two sets of election results from competing parties are sent to the Electoral College. This would launch legal challenges and the prospect of chaos. If neither party's presidential candidate wins the required 270 electoral votes, the decision would be made by the House of Representatives. But here's the tricky part: The decision in the newly elected House would be made not by raw numbers of members, which the Democrats currently control, but by delegation. Of course we don't know how the vote will turn out, but currently the House claims 26 of the state Congressional delegations.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let it be said for now that very few people, not even Republicans, think that altering the election date is a good idea – or even workable. At least we can take solace in that.

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