If you’ve been a little busy lately, here’s what’s going on with the 2020 election

April 15, 2020, 10:30 AM UTC

The United States has officially galloped into general election season, and the first full week of the race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden is underway.


In a pre-COVID-19 world, we’d likely see Trump pick up the pace of his campaign rally appearances in key states across the country. We’d hear the stories about people lining up outside of various arenas in order to hear the President riff for hours about “witch hunts” and “sleepy Joe.” Surely some of his more outrageous lines would grab him massive amounts of earned media. 

Biden would also tour the country, devoting himself to town hall meetings with potential voters where moments of relatable folksy charm would be juxtaposed with moments of calculated (or uncalculated) toughness (“look, fat”). 

The election would be the main driver of news for the next six months. CNN’s graphics package would be over the top. The debates would likely break viewership records. Then the nation would head to the polls in November. 

Clearly, that’s not how things are going to happen this time around. Both candidates are stuck in place, as social-distancing measures are enforced in most states for the foreseeable future. 

With nearly 2,000 Americans dying of the COVID-19 virus each day, overt campaigning appears crass, and each candidate must now reposition themselves as a quasi-wartime chief. As 16 million Americans find themselves newly unemployed, many across the country have been forced to worry about immediate survival needs: how to pay rent and feed their families. The idea of devoting time to a presidential election feels impossible. 

A quick look at mass media betrays the political confusion: “Somehow, There’s Still an Election,” reads a cheeky New York Times headline. “The Constitution will be in tatters if America holds no election this year,” reads an opinion piece, already presuming the worst. This weekend, Michelle Obama, meanwhile, introduced a new initiative to expand absentee voting

So what’s going on with this election, anyway? We answer some burning questions. 

Will the election even happen?

It is incredibly unlikely that the presidential election, slated for Tuesday, Nov. 3, will be canceled or even postponed. This date is set by federal law, and President Donald Trump has no power to move it. Congress would have to pass a law with a date change, and that seems highly improbable with a Democratically controlled House. 

A presidential election has never before been canceled or postponed in the United States. Elections took place in 1916 and 1944, both during World Wars. The Spanish Flu occurred right in the middle of President Woodrow Wilson’s term, but Congressional elections still occurred. In many cases quarantines were lifted just five days before the polls opened, and turnout was incredibly low, at about 40% (it had been 50% during the 1914 midterms).

In recent years, hurricanes in Miami and New Orleans have led to the delay of mayoral elections by a few weeks. The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, took place on the day of a New York City mayoral primary, which was subsequently delayed by two weeks.

Even if a date change does occur, the 20th amendment mandates that “the terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January.” Even if there were no election, President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence would be forced to vacate the White House.

Who would replace them?

That’s a good question with a complicated answer. 

Under normal circumstances the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, would become President. But without reelection, her term is set to expire on Jan. 3, 2021, along with every other member of the House. About one-third of Senators will see their terms expire.

The next in line for the presidency is the president pro tempore of the Senate, currently held by Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). 

This is where things get funky. 

There are 23 seats held by Republicans that will expire this year, and only 12 held by Democrats. That means that without an election Democrats would gain control of the Senate and could nominate their own president pro tempore, a person who would then ascend to the presidency. Except…some states have rules in place that allow governors to name temporary fill-ins for empty Senate seats, so that could also change the balance of the Senate. 

In short, it would get very messy very quickly, and there would likely be a long holdup as the changes are litigated in the courts and on a state-by-state basis.

Okay, so canceling the elections would be way too messy. But how will we vote if we’re sheltering in place?

That’s the million-dollar question. 

The ideal outcome would be that social-distancing measures do their job and countrywide testing is available come November so the general election can take place as it would in any other year. 

But that might not happen. 

This is where the electoral college comes into play. The statute requiring a presidential election states that “the electors of President and Vice President shall be appointed, in each State, on the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November.” That leaves a lot of discretion to the states: There is no constitutional provision or federal law that requires the electoral college to vote based on how the population cast their votes. The electoral college could technically cast their votes without the state’s population even participating. Theoretically, a state could opt to pick electoral college members that they know would vote along party lines.

This, however, is very theoretical and unlikely. Every state in the country has opted to use a popular election to pick their electoral college since the 1860s, and states would have to change their own legislation to end that. 

There are also fears that some districts may remain under strict shelter-in-place orders during the election while others are allowed to go out and vote: That could be enough to sway results in some states. 

I’ve been hearing a lot about this vote-by-mail idea

Voting by mail appears to be the most promising contingency plan right now. 

Over the weekend, Michelle Obama advocated that states allow all voters who wish to send their ballots in by mail to do so. 

“We know that barriers to voting existed before this crisis, especially for young people and communities of color,” Obama said in a statement. “Expanding access to vote-by-mail, online voter registration, and early voting are critical steps for this moment—and they’re long overdue. There is nothing partisan about striving to live up to the promise of our country; making the democracy we all cherish more accessible; and protecting our neighbors, friends, and loved ones as they participate in this cornerstone of American life.”

President Trump, meanwhile, has spoken out against the idea. “I think mail-in voting is horrible; it’s corrupt,” he said at a press conference last week. When a reporter pointed out that the President had voted by mail in the Florida election last month, he said he did it because he was “allowed to.” There is a difference between sending in a ballot while one is out of the state and sending one in while in the state, he said.

“And you get thousands and thousands of people sitting in somebody’s living room signing ballots all over the place. No…I think if you vote you should go, and even the concept of early voting is not the greatest thing,” Trump said.

There is no widespread evidence of voter fraud in the United States, and the President’s own commission on voter fraud disbanded without finding any evidence. A study of absentee ballot fraud by News21 found just 491 alleged instances between 2000 and 2012.

The President may not receive the support of his party on this issue. Republican governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis rely heavily on it. Commonly called absentee voting and allowed by 31 states, voting by mail is often used by those who won’t be in town on Election Day or have a disability that would make it difficult for them to vote in person. In most states, a voter has to meet certain qualifications in order to receive an absentee ballot.

But there are currently five states—Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah—that allow all voters to cast their vote by mail, and at least 21 other states use vote-by-mail in some races, mostly in more local elections like school board seats.

On Sunday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation into effect that would make Election Day a holiday, allow for voting without an ID, and let anyone participate in early voting starting 45 days before the election without any stated reason. Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that all New York residents would be allowed to vote in the primary election by absentee ballot. He has not yet made a decision about the general election. 

The Postal Service, however, is facing its own equity crisis, and some question whether it will even be able to stay afloat long enough to allow for a vote-by-mail.

Primary? I thought you said Joe Biden was the Democratic nominee…

Presumptive Democratic nominee. He won’t be the official nominee until the Democratic National Convention convenes in August.

Many states haven’t voted yet, and while Bernie Sanders has suspended his election, he has not dropped out. That means his name will still be on ballots

Sanders has specifically asked his supporters to cast a vote in his favor, because although he will advise his delegates to vote on behalf of Joe Biden at the Democratic Convention, he explained last week that he wants to harness their collective power to advocate for a more progressive Democratic agenda. 

Sanders, however, is not the sole reason primaries will continue. A number of other Democratic candidates who have suspended their races also remain on the ballot.

Still, turnout will likely be low owing to COVID-19 fears and a presumed nominee. In Wisconsin last Tuesday, before Sanders had even dropped out of the race, turnout, including mail-in ballots, was very low. Some districts reported 10-point drops from 2016.

Are the conventions still happening?

Republicans say they’re continuing to plan their convention as though it will happen in Charlotte, N.C., this August. Democrats have pushed their convention from July to late August but say things will otherwise be business as usual in Milwaukee. 

Does Joe Biden have a plan to combat COVID-19 if he’s elected?

Biden wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times Monday morning which broadly outlined some of his thinking around COVID-19. 

He would continue social distancing while the Department of Health and Human Services works on establishing widespread testing for the virus and its antibodies around the country. President Trump said during a press conference last week that he did not think widespread testing was necessary to “reopen” the country’s businesses. 

Biden also said he would make sure health care and frontline workers were prepared for multiple flare-ups of the outbreak.

Biden previously released a more detailed health care plan, describing how he would bolster hospital budgets and make sure they are prepared for any future COVID-19 waves.

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—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEOs
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