How To Replace a Vice Presidential Nominee

What would happen if the McCain campaign had to ditch Sarah Palin?

The flood of news surrounding Sarah Palin—from her daughter’s pregnancy to her alleged ties in the Alaska Independence Party—has caused the InTrade prediction market to rate the possibility of her being replaced at about 13 percent. No one of note has actually called for Palin to be removed from the ticket, but that hasn’t stopped readers from asking: What happens if someone nominated for president or vice president resigns from the ticket or dies before Election Day?

The members of the national party committees—the RNC and the DNC—get to pick a replacement. As Slatecontributor Richard Hasen has pointed out, the Republican National Committee’s rules specify that the committee members representing each state would be entitled to “cast the same number of votes as said state was entitled to cast at the national convention.” If the RNC members from a state were unanimous, that would be easy enough: All the state’s votes would be marked toward a given candidate. If not, they would be split proportionally. In the case of the Democrats, the DNC’s bylaws simply describe one of the committee’s responsibilities as “filling vacancies in the nominations for the office of President and Vice President.” (See Page 7 of this document [PDF].) The bylaws do not, however, explain how the DNC would go about making its decision or whether all 400-odd members of the committee would receive an equal vote.

What this means as a practical matter is a lot harder to figure out. If a vice presidential slot went vacant, a committee’s choice for a replacement would almost certainly be a rubber stamp; replacing the top of the ticket might be a good deal more complicated in practice. Another problem would be posed by the names printed on the Election Day ballots: State laws vary as to how close to Election Day a party can replace one candidate with another. If a state’s deadline had already passed, a party might have to file a lawsuit to make the change (as the New Jersey Democrats did in 2002, when they replaced the scandal-plagued Robert Torricelli with Frank Lautenberg). Or else, voters might be told that a vote for the old candidate would actually count for his or her replacement, as was the case when Joe Negron ran in place of the disgraced Mark Foley for his congressional seat in Florida in 2006.

The 1972 presidential campaign provides our best historical example of how a vacancy is filled. Less than three weeks after Thomas Eagleton was put on the Democratic ticket—and just days after he disclosed his past electroshock treatment for depression—the Missouri senator announced he would withdraw from the campaign. After presidential candidate George McGovern asked—and was rejected by—Ted Kennedy, Abraham Ribicoff, Hubert Humphrey, Reubin Askew, and Edmund Muskie, he finally settled on former Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver. At a “mini-convention” held in Washington on Aug. 8, the 275 DNC members in attendance voted almost unanimously for Shriver, with Missouri casting its 73 allocated votes to Eagleton in a show of moral support and Oregon casting four of its 34 votes for former Sen. Wayne Morse. (At the convention, Shriver joked about the list of candidates ahead of him in the queue: “I am not embarrassed to be George McGovern’s seventh choice for vice president,” Shriver said. “We Democrats may be short of money. We’re not short of talent. Pity Mr. Nixon—his first and only choice was Spiro Agnew.”)

Eagleton, however, wasn’t the first veep candidate to get bounced after his nomination: That dubious honor goes to Albert Gallatin, who was ditched by a Democratic-Republican ticket looking to strengthen its chances in 1824.

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