The administration’s reported consideration of finding a way to postpone our national elections if terrorists attack may be well intentioned, but ill conceived. It is a bad idea and should be discarded promptly.
We do share the administration’s assessment that such an attack is plausible, and that it could distort the election results. We note, with approval, that the administration believes that if there were to be a change, it should only be done by constitutional amendment — rather than by asserting some vague inherent, implicit powers.
Several advocates of the proposal have likened it to the need for emergency provisions for replacing members of Congress if many of them are killed by terrorist attack — thus denying the House a quorum to vote on needed emergency legislation. The comparison is inapposite.
In the latter instance, the constitutional process could not continue, thus forcing the government to legislate in an unconstitutional manner. Such a condition is unacceptable, and justifies making constitutional emergency provision.
But an election disrupted by terrorist attacks creates no constitutional crises. Even if thousands or, God forbid, millions of American voters were killed or deterred from voting, there would still be a presidential candidate who would win the majority of the remaining votes cast in the several states and the District. The Electoral College would function in December. Either John Kerry or George Bush would, as set out in the Constitution, be elected president.
The republic would stand.
The same cannot be said for postponing the election — even if done by constitutional amendment. The nation has never postponed a presidential election, not even during the Civil War. The precedent would be appalling. Elections are the bedrock of our form of government. Even a technical constitutional amendment permitting a postponement would be a dangerous crack in that bedrock. Such a fissure would provide an entry point for ill-intentioned people (as there always will be) to undermine in the future our government’s electoral integrity.
Depending on one’s point of view, the right man and the right party do not always win American elections. Moreover, our national electoral history is replete with cases where one party or the other has questioned the accuracy or honesty of the vote count. (The elections of 1876, 1960 and 2000 come to mind.) Although those results set off grumbling, such residual ill-will always has been subsumed by our unbroken free electoral tradition. The nation always has pushed on — as the alternative to a timely completion of the election process has been too repulsive to contemplate.
Now is no time to tamper with that time-proven process — neither for ourselves nor for the values we yet advocate for others. Around the world, democracy-loving people have turned out for elections even under gunfire. If we asked other peoples currently seeking democracy to carry out elections under the certainty of gunfire and bomb blast as we prepare to postpone ours for fear of the same, we should feel ashamed. We dare not break our most fundamental unbroken civic tradition of 228 years.