BC-ELECTION-DELAY-CORRECTION-ADV18:WA – national, political, xtop (780 words)

Terrorism fears spur talk of election delay

(Sunday 7-18 release) (EDITORS: Changes wording of graf 13 to clarify.)


By David Goldstein

Knight Ridder Newspapers


WASHINGTON – Can the federal government delay the November presidential election if terrorists stage an attack on or near Election Day?

A better question might be, would it?

As fears grow that terrorists could be planning to disrupt the political conventions or the election, the capital was abuzz last week with talk that Election Day might have to be delayed.

The reaction was immediate. Democrats, still nursing wounds from the disputed 2000 election, saw an attempt to raise anxiety for political gain. Republicans saw weakness in the face of threats.

Others saw an invitation to mischief.

“The problem is, when you try to change when the election is about to be held, the political consequences are obvious and the political motivations are called into question,” said Richard Hasen, a constitutional law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

The power to postpone an election rests with Congress. “Congress sets the date, and Congress can change the date,” he said.

The issue arose after Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge warned that a terrorist attack was likely before Election Day – possibly during the Democratic or Republican conventions. Newsweek magazine reported that Ridge had asked the Justice Department to examine the possibility of delaying the election.

The White House raced to say there was nothing to the report. But against a backdrop of terror alerts and a highly partisan presidential campaign, the issue fed on post-2000 election resentments and post-Sept. 11 paranoia.

“We’re at a tense time with high suspicion,” said John Fortier, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. “There’s always some worry about an October surprise or some last-minute move. But it’s exacerbated by a post-9-11 world.”

The possibility of delaying the Nov. 2 election arose after Ridge received a letter from DeForest B. Soaries Jr., the chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a new agency that helps local officials run federal elections. He had inquired about “contingency needs” for Election Day security.

At a news conference last week, Soaries said local election officials were concerned about the matter. He cautioned Ridge in his letter that no federal agency had the legal authority to cancel and reschedule a federal election.

But Soaries didn’t ask, as Newsweek had reported, that Ridge seek emergency legislation from Congress that would give his commission the authority to postpone the election.

“I … cannot conceive of any circumstances under which a presidential election would be postponed or canceled,” Soaries told reporters.

But with just over 100 days before the election, the story quickly heated up.

White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice tried to cool it.

“We’ve had elections in this country when we were at war, even when we were in civil war,” she told CNN. “And we should have the elections on time. That’s the view of the president; that’s the view of the administration.”

But the messages were mixed.

In interviews, Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, dismissed the idea. But he also said that Ridge had asked the Justice Department for guidance because he was planning for all “contingencies,” including “doomsday scenarios.”

But Justice Department spokesman John Nowacki said Wednesday, “No request has been made.”

Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the agency was looking at security concerns and the election.


It’s a daunting task. A federal election is actually 50 state elections, with nearly 200,000 polling places scattered across the country.

Experts said that if a terrorist attack occurred on Election Day, the law would allow local officials to postpone voting. New York voters were supposed to go to the polls on Sept. 11, 2001, to vote in statewide primary elections, but state officials postponed voting after the attack on the World Trade Center.

In a national election, voters in states not affected by an attack presumably would still vote. But that could pose problems. If voting were delayed in a presidential battleground state, the outcome could be affected because voters would know the results in the rest of the country by the time they voted.

Mark Tushnet, who teaches constitutional law at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, said Congress should probably start thinking about what to do if events demand that a presidential election be postponed. But there are too many “political overtones” now, he said.

“The proper, sensible thing to do is just hold your breath,” he said.

(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-07-16-04 1846EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.