Transfer of Presidential Powers, Explained

Ingrid Liggayu
Mar 26 · 3 min read
Hannah Lazarte for The Atlantic

To the average American citizen, the time between Election Day and Inauguration Day feels like a rest period after all the energy and efforts that went into getting out to vote. But there’s a whole checklist of to-do’s before the next president is inaugurated. Let’s break down all the steps that go into the transfer of presidential powers into three key phases.

“Planning Phase”

Well before Election Day, starting in April or May, members of the transition team are assembled. This team meets with members of Congress, the current administration, the General Services Administration, the Office of Government Ethics, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office of Personnel Management to set goals and prepare the plan for transition.

“Transition Phase”

After Election Day votes are counted (and recounted if required) and each state certifies their results. Under the Electoral Count Act, all states must meet a deadline in which all votes are counted, disputes are resolved, and the winner of electoral college votes is announced.

Electoral votes are cast on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. Electors meet in their respective states to cast their votes for the President and send the results to Washington. Before the official counting of electoral votes, the new Congress is sworn in at noon on January 3rd.

Per the official guide to proceedings on the Senate floor, “The Senate follows a well-established routine on the opening day of a new Congress. The proceedings include swearing in Senators elected or reelected in the most recent general election (approximately one-third of the Senate) or newly appointed to the convening Senate;

  • establishing the presence of a quorum
  • adopting administrative resolutions
  • adopting standing orders for the new Congress
  • agreeing by unanimous consent to a date, other than the convening date, on which bills and joint resolutions may begin to be introduced
  • electing a new President pro tempore and one or more Senate officers if there is a vacancy or a change in party control.”

The President of the Senate (aka the Vice President) then leads a special session with members of Congress to count the electoral votes. There are 538 electoral votes and a candidate must win a minimum of 270. Each vote read then counted in alphabetical order by two appointees each from the House and Senate. The President of the Senate announces the tallies and listens for any objections.

Concurrently, the transition team gets to work within this 75 day period. Key activities during this time (as outlined in the Presidential Transition Guide) include “staffing the White House and agencies; deploying agency review teams to visit agencies; building out the president-elect’s policy and management agendas and schedule; and identifying the key talent necessary to execute the new president’s priorities.”

“Handover Phase”

The next President is sworn in at noon on January 20th. During this phase, the new administration identifies the President’s top priorities and finalizes staff and appointees that will work to achieve these immediate goals. It’s estimated that over 4,000 political appointments will be set.

The importance of a peaceful transition

The peaceful transition of powers from the incumbent administration to the incoming administration is a long standing American tradition. When George Washington voluntarily gave up his presidency, it established an unbroken practice of presidents yielding power after losing an election.

On a practical level, transitioning powers between administrations is necessary since the U.S. federal government is one of the largest organizations. Transferring control on this level is quite complex. Without adequate transition — especially in regards to national security briefings — the nation’s security is put at risk.

Symbolically when the president cedes power after loss, it signifies that the will of the voters truly governs the country. Refusal to concede poses a threat to the confidence of American citizens in the government, which is already in question after cases of voter suppression and confusion on the importance of voting. A peaceful transition strengthens the people’s faith in the democratic process.

Read up on new and re-elected officials on Voterly. You’ll find Politician Profiles outlining past work experience, campaign finance, and (#ComingSoon!) where candidates stand on important issues like climate change, healthcare, and gun rights.


Voterly is the first comprehensive political database…

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store