Kai Pfaffenbach  /  Reuters file
The Madrid train bombing, just three days before national elections, is widely believed to have swayed the election. U.S. officials say no terrorist attack will postpone November elections.
By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
updated 10/14/2004 12:36:26 PM ET 2004-10-14T16:36:26

The resolve to hold federal elections in November is an issue that cuts across all party lines, despite serious warnings that terrorists are seeking to disrupt the democratic process.

The elections will go on no matter what happens,” says Rebecca Vigil-Giron, New Mexico Secretary of State and president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. (The majority of secretaries of state also serve as their state’s chief election official.) 

Earlier this year that resolve came into question amid two terrorism-related events.  First, the Madrid train bombing in March, three days before Spain’s national election, is believed to have swayed voters to oust then Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar in favor of socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.  The former prime minister had supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Spain’s participation in the post-war occupation was directly linked to the train bombing.

And in July Homeland Security officials warned that “chatter” picked up from known and suspected terrorists had moved to a more ominous level.  The Unied States continues to gather intelligence that confirms terrorists remain interested “in affecting the democratic process,” a senior administration official said last week, speaking to reporters on background.  Nothing has changed since the warnings went out in the spring, the official said, “except the window of opportunity is narrowing.”

Against that darkening assessment, or because of it, a coalition of state governing and election officials got together to specifically look at security issues surrounding the November election and developed a security blueprint preparing for any type of disruption, said Vigil-Giron.

“We discussed [the possibility of a terrorist attack] and we built a template for states to use if they do not have anything in place in regards to who they need to communicate with should there be any disruptions on election day at the polling places,” Vigil-Giron said. 

“Every single state has a plan and all of the secretaries of state are adamant about continuing with the election,” said Meredith Imwalle, director of communications for the National Association of Secretaries of State.  “They are adamant about the fact that there will be no postponement of elections and have plans in place to be able to react effectively.”

A senior administration official recently said that leading up to the Nov. 2nd elections counterterrorism agencies will operate at an increased state of readiness with the Federal Bureau of Investigation tasked to re-examine open terrorism cases, re-interviewing possible al-Qaida sympathizers.

Meanwhile, homeland security officials are in close contact with state and local officials to determine what kind of federal help might be needed to secure polling places, a senior administration official said; however, “it remains a state and local responsibility for the security of the polling places."

DHS officials said they expect to increase security around mass transportation and airports, making increased use of dog teams.  And the Coast Guard will step up inspections, officials said.  “We’ll increase the pace of those types of things… to ramp up efforts to build an enhanced homeland security effort,” leading up to Nov. 2, a senior administration official said.  Moreover, those efforts are expected to continue past Election Day and through the Inauguration, homeland security officials said.

Not so fast
The question of whether federal elections would or even could be postponed peaked mid-year after Department of Homeland Security officials asked the Justice Department to weigh in on the matter.  The move by DHS was prompted by a letter from the Election Assistance Commission that voiced concern that “the federal government has no agency that has the statutory authority to cancel and reschedule a federal election.”

The White House scrambled to dampen any fears it was even entertaining the idea of calling off the elections.  “No one is thinking of postponing the elections,” said National Security Advisor Condolezza Rice during a round of television interviews in July.

Less than a week after the controversy over the possible postponement of the November election came up, the House passed a resolution stating that no agency or individual should have the authority to postpone the date of a national election.

The Constitution places federal election responsibility in the hands of Congress. And in the event of massive terrorist strike in the U.S., “someone would have to go to Congress and get Congress to pass a law changing the date of the election,” said Charles Wise, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs and a former Justice Department official.  

But in trying to legislate, especially in the emotional aftermath of another terrorist attack, Congress would be forced to grapple with “all kinds of different considerations,” Wise said, including the fact that “we still had an election during the Civil War, when there was fighting going on within 70 miles of Washington, D.C.” 

And then there are “the considerations of not letting the terrorists determine the time and manner of the United States election for our leaders,” Wise said, “that would clearly be part of the debate, I would think.” 

Although it’s unlikely that Congress could pass any law affecting the timing of this year’s election, should a disaster strike that kept tens of thousands from voting, “Congress may be asked to amend a law to allow those people who couldn’t get to the polls  to vote later,” Wise said.  “Congress can legislate to fix the time and manner of elections.”

Nightmare scenarios about terrorist attacks “is so utterly speculative that it is pointless to debate it,” said James Gardner, a law professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law.

In the event that a terrorist strike actually does happen on Election Day it could lead to “such widespread panic in various places around the nation that turnout is seriously depressed even in places remote from the site of the attack,” Gardner said. 

Even under those dire circumstances the decision to cancel an election “depends upon the judgment of state and local election officials, guided by state laws already in place,” Gardner said, and those officials do have experience dealing with extreme circumstances and even natural disaster devastation.  “But election officials don't cancel the election because of those influences,” he said. 

In this season of uncertainly, there is one thing that seems certain. “If anything disruptive does happen on Election Day, there will be litigation,” Gardner said.  “Indeed, there will be litigation under any circumstances, Osama or no Osama.”

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