Who Decides Who Is the “President-Elect”?

George W. Bush, while saying he won enough Electoral College votes to make him the next president, has so far demurred from calling himself the “president-elect.” Who decides just who is the president-elect, and what does it mean to be called that?

David J. Barram, the administrator of the U. S. General Services Administration, decides. Under U. S. Title 3, Chapter 2, Section 102, the terms “President-elect” and “Vice-President-elect” refer to “the apparent successful candidates for the office … as ascertained by the Administrator following the general elections held to determine the electors of President and Vice President. …” To be designated president-elect gives you access to the transition office run by the GSA: 90,000 square feet of office space, 500 computers, and $5.3 million. Because becoming president-elect gets you these goodies, it is more than simply a courtesy title, but it is less than legally binding. If Barram handed over the transition keys to who he thought was the winning candidate but the Electoral College electors or the House of Representatives came to think otherwise, Barram’s decision would not stand. To date the GSA, which provides everything from office space to vehicles to other federal agencies, has declined to declare an “apparent” winner because of the continuing legal battles over the next presidency. It would be a great public relations coup for either Bush or Al Gore to convince Barram that he will be the next commander in chief. But since, for now, Barram isn’t budging, Bush has gone and rented his own transition office in McLean, Va.

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Explainer thanks Frederick Shauer of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and Mark Tushnet of the Georgetown University Law Center.