U.S. Mulling How to Delay Election in Case of Attack

Reuters – U.S. Mulling How to Delay Nov. Vote in Case of Attack

U.S. counterterrorism officials are looking at an emergency proposal on the legal steps needed to postpone the November presidential election in case of an attack by al Qaeda, Newsweek reported on Sunday.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge warned last week that Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network may attack within the United States to try to disrupt the election. The magazine cited unnamed sources who told it that the Department of Homeland Security asked the Justice Department last week to review what legal steps would be needed to delay the election if an attack occurred on the day before or the day of the election.

The department was asked to review a letter to Ridge from DeForest Soaries, who is the chairman of the new U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the magazine said. The commission was created in 2002 to provide funds to the states to the replace punch card voting systems and provide other assistance in conducting federal elections. In his letter, Soaries pointed out that while New York’s Board of Elections suspended primary elections in New York on the day of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, “the federal government has no agency that has the statutory authority to cancel and reschedule a federal election.” Soaries wants Ridge to ask Congress to pass legislation giving the government such power, Newsweek reported in its latest issue that hits the newsstands on Monday. Homeland Security Department spokesman Brian Rochrkasse told the magazine the agency is reviewing the matter “to determine what steps need to be taken to secure the election.”

My initial reaction was that simple legislation couldn’t accomplish this, as the Constitution specifies the time when elections for federal offices must be held. Actually, though, that isn’t true:

The Tuesday after the first Monday in November was initially established by federal law in 1845 for the appointment of presidential electors in every fourth year. In 1875, lawmakers established this day for electing representatives in every even numbered year. In 1914, it also became the day for electing U.S. senators.

The Newsweek story, “Election Day Worries,” presumably has more details. I can’t get there at the moment owing to ISP issues.

Joe Gandleman has some thoughts on the issue, too, but I can’t read them because his blogrolling.com code isn’t loading and thus everything after it on the site is down. See this post for more info on that issue.

UPDATE (7/12): There’s actually not much more detail in the Newsweek story.

Justice was specifically asked to review a recent letter to Ridge from DeForest B. Soaries Jr., chairman of the newly created U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Soaries noted that, while a primary election in New York on September 11, 2001, was quickly suspended by that state’s Board of Elections after the attacks that morning, “the federal government has no agency that has the statutory authority to cancel and reschedule a federal election.” Soaries, a Bush appointee who two years ago was an unsuccessful GOP candidate for Congress, wants Ridge to seek emergency legislation from Congress empowering his agency to make such a call. Homeland officials say that as drastic as such proposals sound, they are taking them seriously—along with other possible contingency plans in the event of an election-eve or Election Day attack. “We are reviewing the issue to determine what steps need to be taken to secure the election,” says Brian Roehrkasse, a Homeland spokesman.

Upon reflection, such contingency planning doesn’t seem unreasonable. Certainly, the Daily Kos crowd sees a conspiracy here.

Is this merely a perfectly reasonable contingency plan, preparation for one possible course of action if, say, a purloined nuke hidden in a ship container takes out a 2-mile radius at the Port of Long Beach or Seattle on October 29? Or is it a trial balloon for a Cheney-Bush plan to call off the November election for purely political reasons?

Would a terrorist attack — even an extremely serious attack on four or five widely dispersed targets — actually offer enough rationale for calling off the elections? Some people argue that such an attack so close to the elections might skew the results, as they claim occurred in Spain after the 3/11 Madrid bombings. Perhaps. But which way? Would Americans rally behind the incumbent out of fear and a gut desire for unity after such an attack? Or would they be angry because the attack proved that not enough and many of the wrong things had been done to protect us against terrorism during the incumbent’s term of office?

Short of a full-out nuclear exchange of the sort much discussed during the Cold War, do you think there is any justification for calling off national elections?

Ogged is less histrionic but essentially agrees:

Unless roads are inaccessible or cities are burning, or some such logistical challenge, there just isn’t an acceptable way to postpone an election. Yes, it’s quite true that people might be voting hysterically and irrationally, but agents of the government could well be acting in the same way. In an interesting way, by protesting or not, the people will wind up choosing whether they want democracy or an imitation of it. It’s amazing how fragile the whole thing has turned out to be.

Joe Gandelman observes,

You do NOT want Al Qaeda to be able to influence an election. But if you postpone an election YOU are influencing an election and assuming that voting choices will be made due due to the attack and not on other matters as well.

Everyone seems to be focusing on the public psyche after an attack and its impact on swinging votes. It seems to me there are other considerations. What if a terrorist attack made voting impossible in New York City, Chicago, or San Francisco? That could conceivably create incredibly illegitimate results in a close presidential election–not to mention Senate races. Would we really want to re-elect President Bush narrowly in a contest where Kerry strongholds were unable to participate? As Kate McMillan notes, “But what of an attack that took down the power grid for two days a la the summer of 2003 or caused in the death of a candidate and his running mate?” Talk about influencing an election.

So far as I know, no one is talking about cancelling elections, merely postponing them–presumably under control of some sort of bipartisan commission–as happened in NYC after 9-11. Furthermore, postponing elections doesn’t mean postponing turnover in office. The dates for presidential and congressional terms are set in Constitutional stone; changing those would require 2/3 votes in both Houses of Congress and the approval of 3/4 of the state legislatures (or comparable procedures).

Now, Dean Esmay and Captain Ed are probably right that, in the current political climate, this idea won’t fly precisely because of the conspiracy theorists. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth thinking through “what if” scenarios.

The story has caught the mass media’s attention, too, not just that of the blogosphere:

CNN — Officials discuss how to delay Election Day

Boston Herald – Feds plan for disruption of elections

Update (7/12 11:42): Dan Drezner is rendered exceedingly scared by the very idea. Stephen Green thinks it’s a “very stupid idea” while his co-blogger Will Collier thinks it “better to plan now than improvise later.”

Update (7/12 16:31): Kevin Drum doesn’t see a conspiracy here but notes that there’s not much point in arguing with conspiracy theorists. Indeed.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.