The return of ABC‘s Scandal has created a lot of excitement and brought up a few questions concerning the structure of the American democracy. This season picks up where the last left off, a presidential election is happening and everyone is holding their breaths as the race for the Oval Office is coming to an end.
On one side of this political boxing match is Senator Mellie Grant who represents the Republican Party, she is the former First Lady and ex-wife of the current President. The other side features Frankie Vargas who is the Governor of Pennsylvania and the candidate for the Democratic Party.
The first episode of Scandal‘s new season gives a surprising twist, Frankie is assassinated shortly after winning the general election. The question now is who will become the next President? During the show issues of succession are brought up and a train of thought is given pertaining to what happens next.
The United States Constitution has guidelines for succession in the case that a President dies while serving his term; it even discusses what happens when a President-elect dies as well. Unfortunately, Frankie does not qualify as the President-elect since the winner of the election is chosen by the Electoral College and not the general election. The Electoral College doesn’t meet for another month and the Constitution does not have any guidelines for the death of a candidate. Scandal’s solution is to assume that the current President has a say in who takes his seat. He gets to make the difficult decision between his ex-wife who lost the general election or Cyrus Beene, who is Frankie’s running mate. If Frankie had been confirmed as the President-elect prior to his death, Cyrus would automatically be the next President and this discussion wouldn’t be taking place.
In real life, lawmakers and government officials reference the Constitution to handle questions that relate to certain federal processes and institutions. When that fails the next step is to take a look into American history to gain clarity through the results of similar situations that have taken place. It’s also a good idea to have the Attorney General or a couple of Constitutional attorneys lying around on standby.
Most people don’t keep a copy of the Constitution on their coffee table; fortunately, the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration keeps one on their website. It’s time to get a brief lesson in Constitutional Law. Section 3 of Twentieth Amendment deals with the death of the President and the death of a President-elect. Hopefully, it’s common knowledge among American citizens that if the President dies then the Vice President is next in line; the same principle applies President-elect and the Vice President-elect. In the event neither the President-elect or the Vice President-elect are able to take power on Inauguration Day, it is up to Congress to decide who will become President. Unfortunately, these terms do not apply since there isn’t a President-elect and Inauguration Day is nowhere in sight; making the Constitution no help in this situation.
Now let’s take that walk down history lane. On Scandal, there were no historical references for any similar situations ever happening in American history, but just because they didn’t mention any doesn’t mean none exist. Anyone ever heard of Horace Greeley? That’s okay, grade school American History and U.S. Government classes are notorious for skipping a lot of important information and focusing only on certain key points. By the way, happy Black History Month. According to the National Archives and Records Administration, Horace Greeley was a Presidential candidate in the elections of 1872. He represented the Liberal Republican Party and ran against former President Ulysses S. Grant, who was running for his second term. During the campaign Greeley became ill and died a few weeks after the general election, but before the Electoral College cast their ballots. The election carried on, obviously, he did not win but if he had Section 3 of the Twentieth Amendment would have been the framework to guide the country through this matter.
So, was Scandal’s conclusions for who becomes the next President correct? It’s a mixed bag; the show was correct when determining that nobody had yet won the election since the Electoral College had not taken place. The Constitution doesn’t set any parameters for someone who isn’t legally the President-elect, which makes them still a candidate. However, the show was wrong for assuming that the current President had any influence over this decision. Only Congress gets a say and that’s only after Inauguration Day.
Other than Congress, the Supreme Court could possibly take action under the correct circumstances. Also, the vice president on the ticket would never be considered to take the place of the winner of the general election, dead or alive; not until that person won the electoral vote. Similar to the case of Horace Greeley, the election will continue until the Electoral College made its decision. Cyrus Beene would only be able to gain the presidency if the Electoral chooses the deceased Frankie Vargas as the winner.
If there are no further questions, this concludes today’s Constitutional Law lesson. Continue to watch Scandal on ABC, Thursdays at 9 PM EST/8 PM CT.