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Terrorists Can't Halt Vote, Experts Say

July 13, 2004|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Even if terrorists were to attack on election day, it is highly unlikely that voting could or would be halted across the nation, lawmakers and scholars said Monday.

Congress could postpone a federal election -- but only by passing a law to do so -- while the Bush administration has no legal authority to act on its own.

The question arose after Newsweek reported in next Monday's issue that counterterrorism officials were reviewing a proposal that could allow for postponing the election. But the Department of Homeland Security said Monday that it had no plans to seek such a delay in the face of heightened fears that Al Qaeda was planning a large-scale attack to try to influence the election.

"I am unaware of any such efforts," said Brian Roehrkasse, a department spokesman. "DHS is not looking into a contingency plan."

National security advisor Condoleezza Rice was even more emphatic. "Let me just be very clear: I don't know where the idea that there might be some postponement of elections comes from," she said on CNN.

The Department of Homeland Security has been researching laws and precedents in an effort to gather information but is not drafting a plan. An official said the research was prompted by inquiries from the Election Assistance Commission, a little-known federal advisory body whose chairman, DeForest B. Soaries, pointed out in a letter to the department that no federal agency had the authority to postpone an election.

The United States has held elections in the throes of civil and world wars, and several senior lawmakers forcefully rejected the suggestion that this fall's election could be postponed.

"Were we to postpone the elections, it would represent a victory for the terrorists," said Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "The election is going to go forward."

"We should be an example for democracies around the world, and that means holding our elections as scheduled," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). Added Cox: "I personally wouldn't want to give anybody in Washington, least of all people who are running themselves, authority to reschedule an election."

Experts said a mechanism for postponing elections should be debated, even if it would not be needed. "It is very unlikely that a terrorist incident would disrupt the entire election because it would tend to be localized," said Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution.

To avoid any appearance of politics tainting the process, Congress would probably have to create a neutral entity to decide whether to postpone an election, said Richard H. Pildes, a professor at the New York University School of Law. The powers of that entity would have to be carefully spelled out, he said.

The authority to set the times and places of federal elections is shared by the states and Congress, Mann said. Congress has long required states to hold federal elections on the same day. If a disaster strikes a state or city, Mann said, local authorities have the power to postpone voting. That occurred in New York on Sept. 11, when local primaries were postponed for two weeks.

In the case of a presidential election, a state legislature can directly appoint the electors who will cast the state's votes in the electoral college.

Those options should be sufficient, suggested Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal election law.

Newsweek reported that the Department of Homeland Security had asked the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel to analyze the issues raised by Soaries' letter. But officials said Monday that there was no formal request for an opinion. "No discussions, formal or informal, have transpired," said a Justice Department spokesman.

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