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Expert: Voting Can't Be Postponed Due To A Candidate's Illness

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The news that President Trump contracted coronavirus raised a lot of questions about what could happen this election cycle, which is already under the unusual pressure of a pandemic. KUNM spoke with Lonna Atkeson from the University of New Mexico’s Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy this afternoon to find out some of the answers. She described what her morning had been like since speculation and word of Trump’s possible illness started sweeping the globe.

Lonna Atkeson: I've just been getting a lot of calls from different people asking about the implications for the election and possibly for post-election. What are the possible scenarios that could play out in that? And, you know, I've been trying to look at the laws related to succession and the party laws and thinking about trying to figure out all of the options.

KUNM: Let's get into some of the options. Well, voting is already underway. What happens if one of the candidates is no longer an option, maybe because of their health, or because they withdrew from the ballot?

Atkeson: Right. So, if someone were to die, the vice-presidential candidate would just become the candidate, and that's really quite straightforward in a way. If they were to withdraw, that's not clear, because that's not really set up the same way.

Withdrawal would be much more complicated. The first thing that would have to happen is that the party would have to nominate someone else. So they'd have to somehow create a process to select a nominee. Then that could be complicated, because people have already voted—you can't really vote for a person who's not on a ballot.

Those ballots are already printed, and how would we judge ballots? Most states don't allow you to take back your ballot once it’s voted. So, I think there's about seven states that do. That would be a real problem, right? People are voting for people, and you have to count the votes for those people, so you'd have to go to the Supreme Court and have some sort of ruling about what those votes meant.

Who knows what they would say? Could you count votes for one Republican Party nominee for another Republican nominee or Democratic nominee, I guess, if things were to change, just across the board?

KUNM: During this pandemic, so much of this process is unusual, like we're talking about. Is there a danger that the election is disrupted in a way that kind of undermines our democracy? I mean, the president has said several times that he won't necessarily accept the election results and cede power if he loses, alleging voter fraud. But are there concerns now that his illness could be used to somehow undermine the process here?

Atkeson: You know, I don't think it undermines the process that someone is ill. I mean, someone is ill, and life goes on, and things move along, and the election is going to come and go whether or not someone gets sick or not. The complication here, obviously, is most of the time candidates get sick, they just keep moving.

I mean, you know, these are things that just happen to people. It could be a cause for some sort of conspiracy theory. I mean, I do think both the left and the right have set up narratives about losses and why they are. And whatever happens in this election, I think that those voices are going to be a part of the post-election noise. That's going to be unfortunate.

KUNM: Is there any argument to be made that since Trump can't campaign during this crucial time in the electoral season, that the election should be postponed?

Atkeson: No, the election cannot be postponed. I mean, that would take an act of Congress to change the law. There's no way anyone's changing or postponing voting. I mean, we are in process, people have already voted. There's just no way. I mean, whatever happens whether someone gets more incapacitated, and the vice president has to take over for a short time, or the rest of the term.

KUNM: What are you keeping your eye on as we move forward?

Atkeson: I'm keeping my eyes on the number of rejected ballots, and how that's changing in states. North Carolina's publishing reports about this regularly—and so you know, they have a pretty good vote-by-mail system actually, and they have really good records—so you can look at that and see what ballot rejections are.

I am concerned about the potential for many ballot rejections that might make people feel that the election is not as legitimate, again on both sides. And ballot rejections are going to happen. I mean, that's not a voter suppression issue, per se. I mean, it's an issue of: Ballots come in late, they come in without the proper authentication. I'm concerned about a potential of a lot of uncounted ballots that makes the election perceived as less legitimate.


Hear more of their conversation Sunday at 11 a.m. on our show No More Normal

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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