The allegations published by The Washington Post — that Moore initiated sexual contact with four women between the ages of 14 and 18 when he was in his 30s — are explosive. National Republicans have largely condemned the actions and called for Moore to step aside if they’re true, although Republican Party faithful in Alabama have come to his defense. But with the special election against Democratic nominee Doug Jones scheduled for Dec. 12, it’s too late for Moore’s name to be removed from the ballot.
Here are five ways this could play out.
Roy Moore stays on the ballot in Alabama
Alabama law says a candidate’s name can’t be removed from the ballot within 76 days of the election. This is true even if Moore decides to drop out of the race: His name would stay on the ballot, and any votes cast for him would not count. But the Alabama Secretary of State’s office told TIME that if Moore withdraws, the election would be voided if he still won or if no other candidate got more than 50%—or a plurality— of the vote. Put another way, even if Moore withdraws from the race, the Democratic candidate Doug Jones (or a write-in candidate) would still need to crack 50% of the vote to win. Some legal experts are also positing that even without getting 50% of the vote, the runner-up in the contest could win.
Republicans launch a write-in candidate against Moore
Republicans can’t add a new name to the ballot. But they could launch a campaign for a write-in candidate. Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski has already spoken to Alabama Republican Sen. Luther Strange about throwing his hat in the ring, the Hill reports. Strange, who was appointed to the seat after Sessions become Attorney General, lost to Moore in the primary. Alabama has a “sore loser” rule that prevents candidates who lost the primary from appearing on the general election ballot. But that wouldn’t bar Strange from simply running as a write-in. As Alabama’s secretary of state office wrote in a news release, “All votes for “write-in” candidates will be counted in the event that the candidate is qualified to hold the office and not a fictional character. … There are no existing stipulations that prohibit a candidate from being elected despite having unsuccessfully run for a party’s nomination, which would normally apply due to Alabama’s sore loser law.”
Murkowski won as a write-in candidate in 2010. The last senator to do it successfully before her? South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond in 1954.
Moore stays in the race and no one new enters
Voters then are faced with the same choice they’ve already been considering: Moore vs. Jones.
Moore wins the Senate race
Moore could very well win and head to the Senate, where he’ll meet a host of Republicans who had already called on him to drop out. The Senate would have the power to kick Moore out: Article I, Section 5, of the Constitution says that “Each House [of Congress] may determine the Rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member.” But according to Senate history, the body has only expelled 15 senators since 1789. And 14 of those were charged with support of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
If Moore wins, the far more likely scenario is that he’ll stay in the Senate and become a perpetual thorn in party leader Mitch McConnell’s side. McConnell backed Strange during the primary and said of Moore now, “If these allegations are true, he must step aside.” Moore repeatedly bashed McConnell during his primary run.
Democrat Doug Jones wins
Jones has been trailing Moore by double digits in the polls. But this bombshell could help his candidacy in multiple ways: If Republicans launch a write-in campaign, that could split the GOP vote and help him come out ahead. Or, with four weeks still until the election, Democrats could throw money and support behind Jones if they suddenly begin to see this as a winnable contest. If Jones does win, Republicans will have just a razor thin majority, putting much of the party’s major legislative priorities in jeopardy.
-With additional reporting by Alana Abramson