msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 7/12/2004 11:01:49 PM ET 2004-07-13T03:01:49

Federal election officials will meet next week with officials of the Department of Homeland Security to discuss whether and how they would delay the November presidential election in the event of a catastrophic terrorist attack, a top elections official told MSNBC on Monday.

The official, DeForest B. Soaries Jr., chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, denied in an interview on MSNBC’s “Countdown” that federal officials had any plans to postpone the election, but he confirmed a report in the new edition of Newsweek magazine that the panel was seeking to establish a process to do so should it become necessary.

“This has less to do with expecting terror than it has to do with making plans in the event of a crisis,” Soaries said. “If I suggest that you buy a spare tire, I’m not suggesting you postpone your trip.”

President Bush did not directly address the issue in a speech Monday at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. But he said, “The terrorists are ruthless and resourceful, and we know they are preparing to attack us again.”

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Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, meanwhile, said in a television interview, “No one’s thinking about postponing the election.”

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

No ‘national standard’
Newsweek reported that the Department of Homeland Security asked the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel last week to review a letter Soaries sent to Secretary Tom Ridge noting that “the federal government has no agency that has the statutory authority to cancel and reschedule a federal election.”

Video: ‘Mutual interest’

Soaries confirmed Monday that he did bring the issue to Ridge’s attention.

“We don’t have a real national standard for what constitutes a disaster,” Soaries said, noting that the Sept. 11, 2001, mayoral primary in New York City was suspended after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center that morning. The primary was delayed for two weeks; the general election went ahead as scheduled.

Soaries also expressed concern in his letter to Ridge that higher Election Day security could intimidate some voters, highlighting the need for communication between security officials and election administrators. He said he raised similar questions in a letter he sent to Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress.

“We have mutual interests in common to both law enforcement and election offices across the country as we prepare for the November election,” he told MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, adding that he and other election officials would “begin meeting and planning together next week” with Homeland Security officials.

The issue has been raised against the backdrop of bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people and injured 2,000 others on March 11, three days before the Spanish national elections. The bombings were blamed in part for the defeat of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who strongly supported the war in Iraq.

While there is no formal mechanism in federal law for suspending a presidential election, Congress does have responsibility for setting the date of the election, meaning it could change the date if an attack took place before voting started, authorities in constitutional law told NBC News.

‘Distorts the results’
Some legal scholars told NBC News that if a big enough Madrid-type attack were to disrupt voting in just one state, the entire election would have to be suspended because of the constitutional requirement that the election take place on the same day across the country.

“To let one area of the country vote on a different day, after the rest of the country had voted, when they would almost certainly know the likely outcome of the election otherwise, distorts the results of the election,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

But considering that presidential elections went ahead during two world wars and even at the height of the Civil War, other legal experts said it would take a catastrophe much worse than the Madrid attacks to justify derailing the electoral process.

“I would think nothing like the Madrid bombing would even come close to the level that would have to be required,” said Richard H. Pildes, a professor of constitutional law at New York University. “Only if there was some massive disruption of the election itself would one even imagine this as a possibility.”

By MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson with NBC’s Pete Williams in Washington.

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