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The Rules For A Peaceful Transition Of Power Between Presidents


We're going to lay out the rules this morning for a presidential transition. Each president has peacefully handed over power to the next since 1797 when George Washington stepped down. But in Tuesday's debate, President Trump raised the specter of a disputed election. The president has constantly fanned false concerns about mail-in ballots, which have been used safely for years. They will be used more often this fall because of the pandemic, which raises the possibility that we might not know the winner on election night. So moderator Chris Wallace asked if Trump would wait for results before claiming victory.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I am urging my people - I hope it's going to be a fair election. If it's a fair election...

CHRIS WALLACE: You're urging them what?

TRUMP: ...I am 100% on board, but if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can't go along with that. And I'll tell you what. From a common sense...

WALLACE: And what does that mean, not go along? Does that mean you're going to tell your people to take to the streets?

TRUMP: I'll tell you what it means. It means you have a fraudulent election.

INSKEEP: So the president raising the baseless concerns there of widespread fraud. Chris Wallace put the same question to Joe Biden, who said he would wait for results. Biden also said there is no way for President Trump to hold on to power if he should lose.


JOE BIDEN: But by the way, if, in fact, he says he's not sure what he's going to accept, well, let me tell you something. It doesn't matter because if we get the votes, it's going to be all over. He's going to go. He can't stay in power. It won't happen. It won't happen. So vote.

INSKEEP: The last disputed election was in the year 2000. I covered that. And my editor at that time was NPR's Ron Elving, who is now NPR's senior Washington correspondent and is with us to talk through the possibilities this fall. Hey there, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: How soon is the winner of a presidential election generally known?

ELVING: Generally on election night the news people all say they think they know who won. And what actually we know is which way it's going and who is likely to be the person who wins the most electors according to the tally state by state in the Electoral College, which won't meet until December. So after election night, we have strong indications, but you have to count all the ballots. And there are still some ballots coming in in any election after election night, absentee ballots and so on. And so when all of that's been done and the states have certified the results, then the Electoral College meets in December and actually elects the president.

INSKEEP: That sounds very orderly, but let's work through things that can go wrong. Suppose that, as in 2000, it's very close and there's a dispute about which ballots to count. It ends up in court. Is there a legal deadline by which the states need to report what the result was so the electors know how to vote?

ELVING: Yes. It's the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. How do you like that? This year, it's December 14. But in the Constitution, that's how they designate it. And on that day, in all 50 state capitals, plus in the District of Columbia, the electors who have been elected on Election Day and in the counting of the ballots since Election Day meet and make the decision as to who is to be president. Somebody needs a majority.

INSKEEP: What if there is a state or several states where it's disputed? Who earn the electors?

ELVING: If those states have enough electoral votes between them that it can't be determined that there is a majority for one candidate - and that has happened in our past back in the 1800s - if that should happen again in the 21st century, then it goes to the House of Representatives where each state delegation gets one vote - not each member of the House, but each state delegation gets one vote.

INSKEEP: Oh, so there is a process if the electoral vote is not decisive, and it's a vote in the House of Representatives. Which party would then have a majority if it's by state, not by the actual total number of representatives?

ELVING: Right now, it looks like 26-24 Republican because they have a lot of the smaller states. But some of the smaller states are also Democratic. And actually, it's the new House that decides. That is to say, the House that's going to be elected on November 3. So there could be some question marks as to who is elected in some of those states to represent that one seat in certain states. And maybe there could be a close delegation here and there where the results of November 3 have to be official before we even know who their House representatives are.

INSKEEP: Remembering, I guess, that there's a kind of failsafe here, the House of Representatives can choose a president if nobody else can. What happens if we get to January 20 and there's no president?

ELVING: If there's no president as of noon on January 20 when the current president's term ends legally, then we go to the line of succession. It does not go to the vice president because that vice president's election would still be in dispute as well. So it would go to the line of succession. This goes back 70 years in some, and that first person in line would be the speaker of the House. At the moment, that would be Nancy Pelosi. But we'll have to see the results of the November election before we know which party is in the majority in the House come January.

INSKEEP: I'm remembering that in 2000, amid the disputed election, Bill Clinton, who was the outgoing president not directly involved in the election, made some reassuring statements. He said, don't worry, we still have a president, we have a process. It will work through to the end. We'll have a president on January 20. Are there enough safeguards that we can feel confident that that will be the case in early 2021?

ELVING: Yes, considering that we do have the line of succession that would take over at noon on Inauguration Day, January 20.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.