Monday, July 12, 2004

A suggestion that terrorism might delay the November election raised loud cries of “no” yesterday from both Republicans and Democrats.

The chairman of the House committee that oversees federal election law said devising a plan to postpone the Nov. 2 presidential election in case of a terrorist attack creates “serious and complex” constitutional problems.

“In the aftermath of September 11, we need to prepare for contingency plans for various situations,” said Rep. Bob Ney, Ohio Republican and chairman of the Committee on House Administration, “but I have very serious concerns about giving one federal official or even a particular federal body the power to postpone or cancel a national election.

“Such a proposal would involve very serious and complex issues, many of which I do not think are even yet known. I would, however, be extremely hesitant to endorse such a proposal, especially at this early juncture.”

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said last week that contingency plans were in the works at Homeland Security to deal with any disruption at the Republican or Democratic party conventions this summer in New York and Boston, or before the Nov. 2 election.

Newsweek magazine reported yesterday that the Justice Department had been asked to define the legal authority necessary for a postponement, if an attack occurred the day before or the day of the election. A Justice Department spokesman denied that any request for a “legal review” had been made.

Mr. Ridge’s remarks were included in a warning that al Qaeda terrorists, who killed nearly 3,000 people in the September 11 attacks, had plans for another major attack against targets in the United States, although he had no information on the time, place or method of any such attack.

Homeland Security’s review of contingency plans were prompted by a letter by the Rev. DeForest B. Soaries Jr., chairman of the newly named U.S. Election Assistance Commission, in which he told Mr. Ridge that the department should seek legal advice on how to delay the election in the event of a terrorist attack.

In the letter, Mr. Soaries, elected chairman in March after President Bush named him to the commission, said a review was necessary because the government lacked statutory authority to cancel or reschedule a federal election.

He proposed that Congress consider legislation giving the government such power, noting that New York’s Board of Elections suspended primary elections in New York on the day of the September 11 attacks. National elections have been held on several occasions during wartime, including the election of 1864 when the nation was divided by civil war.

No one was available yesterday at the commission, and Mr. Soaries did not return telephone calls to the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, N.J., where he is senior pastor.

Mr. Ney said although he was not aware of any requests by Mr. Soaries or the commission to be given such authority, he would be “very concerned” if the commission, Homeland Security, the Justice Department or any other federal body had “the singular authority to make such an inconceivable decision.”

“There is no reason to believe that even if there were an attack that the state officials responsible for the elections in that area would be incapable of deciding for themselves whether or not a postponement was necessary or warranted,” Mr. Ney said.

Homeland Security spokesman Brian Rochrkasse did not return calls yesterday for comment, but he had said earlier that the department is reviewing the matter “to determine what steps need to be taken to secure the election.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, on board Air Force One yesterday, said he had not heard “any real suggestion that there would be a delay in the elections.”

A spokesman for Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, technology and homeland security, yesterday said a decision to delay the Nov. 2 election could not be made now “without knowing the nature and scope of any suspected attack.” The spokesman said any ruling would have to be based “proportionally” on events at the time.

“If Washington, D.C., is going up in flames that day, we might have to delay the election, but if the attack is aimed at Mount Rushmore, maybe not,” the spokesman said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California, Democrat criticized any effort to postpone the election.

“The Department of Homeland Security should not instill fear or inject uncertainty into the election,” she said. “If Bush administration officials have any evidence that would warrant considering postponing the election, they should immediately share it with the Congress. Otherwise, they should disavow this fear-mongering.

“Instead of focusing on changing the date of the election, the Department of Homeland Security should focus on reducing the risk of an attack.”

The Republican convention in New York and the Democratic convention in Boston have been designated “special security events,” making the U.S. Secret Service the lead agency in charge of security. Contingency plans are in the works to deal with any disruption at the party conventions or before the election.

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission collects information and reviews procedures for the administration of federal elections.

• James Lakely and Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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