Can the Presidential Election Be Canceled?


Editor’s Note: We hope you have enjoyed our election coverage. This will be the last installment of our series until September.

Note from the Author: “I would like to thank you for reading our coverage. Thank you very much to The Torch for giving me this opportunity. I am sure the person who will replace me will keep our SJU community well informed. Please remember to vote! Mark your calendars for Nov. 3, whether it will be in person or by mail ballot, your voice counts!”




On April 27, the New York Board of Elections canceled the Democratic Presidential Primary Election —the first state to do so outright. Despite this, the state and congressional voting will continue to take place on June 23. Georgia became the second state to delay primary voting behind Louisiana because of the coronavirus outbreak. With the virus disrupting every aspect of living in the U.S. and abroad, will the presidential election be canceled?

The answer: No.  

A federal law passed in 1845 , the Presidential Election Day Act, says congressional elections must be held “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November.” Legal experts say the president can’t use his executive power, martial law or a national emergency to cancel it. If he does try to do so, the Supreme Court would have to intervene. 

Thanks to the Constitution, Congress has the final word when it comes to voting for House and Senate members. 

For some background: Each state has control over how, when and where voting takes place. Congress has the final say if there is a disagreement. The 20th Amendment also gives Congress the power to change the date for the presidential elections. It requires the vote of the House of Representatives (which is controlled by Democrats) and changing the amendment would require three-fourths of the states to agree.  

However, if Congress were to vote to postpone the election, the amendment says “the acting president and vice president must end their term on January 20 every four years.” January 20, 2021, for President Trump. The person who would then take command would be the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (this is assuming House elections occurred) and then the ‘President pro Temporare” of the U.S. Senate, who presides over the Senate in the absence of the vice president. (The position is currently held by Chuck Grassley (R-IA).)

There is a Loophole

When Americans cast their vote on Election Day, their votes go toward electing electoral college members. The number of members per state depends on the population size, and they choose who the next president will be. The Constitution says, “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof…” This does not guarantee that voting for electors has to be through a popular vote. The state governments can pick electors (so it would be acceptable for them to choose the electors that align with their preferred party candidate). Theoretically this means that states that are Republican can choose electors that back Trump and it would be legal. However, experts say this has a low chance of formally playing out because states would have to amend their own laws.

We may not know how the situation with the coronavirus will unfold in the coming months until Election Day. It is safe to say that the president doesn’t have the power to cancel it.