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Hold Special House Elections in a Week? Just Plain Absurd

Why does it take an average of four months to hold special elections for the House? The question is important if we are to assess appropriately the Sensenbrenner/Dreier/Miller plan to deal with a terrorist attack on Washington by requiring near-immediate special elections. The answer: Running an election from scratch is a difficult, multifaceted job. [IMGCAP(1)]

Here are some of those facets. Candidates have to qualify for the ballot, leaving enough time for parties to make choices, independents to emerge and the broadest pool of talented people to show their wares as potential representatives of the people. Too little time, and qualified people will be frozen out, while those with tons of money and notoriety will remain. Polling places have to be reserved. Voting machines have to be tested and certified. Ballots, including sample ballots and real ones, have to be printed, something that can’t be done until the candidates are deemed qualified and set for the ballot. The same, of course, is true for absentee ballots, and time has to be allotted for mailing them out and having them mailed back in. Poll workers have to be secured and trained.

Could the time be shortened? In many cases, sure. When there is one vacancy out of 435 in the House, there is often little urgency about filling the seat. The House goes on, and casework in the district continues to be handled by staff. But as the working group set up by House leaders to deal with issues of continuity of Congress concluded, at best, one could expedite elections by a month or two, and that would be extremely difficult if there were many elections going on at the same time.

The working group thus proposed a resolution encouraging but not mandating states to hold elections in a “timely” fashion, without mandating limits, and the House agreed.

The practical difficulty of pulling off an unexpected election in short order is in full relief in California, where there are only two full months between the time the gubernatorial candidates were certified by the California secretary of state and the time of the recall election. And the consensus conclusion of local election officials throughout the state is that they need several more months to run a smooth, corruption and error-limited election. Most fear California may resemble Florida in 2000.

California, of course, has also faced a series of legal challenges because of voting rights concerns. There are serious questions about absentee ballots. And there is a humongous voting machine problem. And all of this, of course, is without any national emergency or other elections to further strain the system.

It is that context that makes the proposal from GOP Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (Wis.), David Dreier (Calif.) and Candice Miller (Mich.) to require states in the event of a catastrophe to hold special elections to the House within three weeks — within one week after parties select candidates — a nonstarter.

Forget some of the elements that are simply not well-considered: The bill triggers the mandate when the Speaker declares that the House has 100 vacancies; what if there is no Speaker and no House? Just consider the dynamics of holding hundreds of elections across the nation at a time of national disaster, with two weeks for the selection of candidates by parties and then one week maximum to hold the elections.

Consider who would be frozen out of the most critical set of elections in our lifetime: all independent candidates and most third parties; all absentee voters; the entire military overseas or away from their homes — all with no appeal and no recourse. Think of the legitimate complaints of minority voters. Figure out how election officials would determine who qualifies for the ballot, secure the polling places, get the voting machines prepared, get poll workers, train them, check the registration rolls and make sure they are available and in sync with the polling places, print sample ballots, print real ballots, and so on — within one week.

It is, to be frank, absurd on its face. Sensenbrenner, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, says that we critics of this bill are “eggheads,” according to a recent interview. Are the local election officials in California who are struggling to make the system work in two full months also eggheads? Sensenbrenner points to the co-sponsorship of Miller, a former Michigan secretary of state. I have great sympathy for Miller — a freshman squeezed between two of the most powerful senior chairmen of the House to give her imprimatur to this plan. But I would like to see Miller with a straight face say that as Michigan secretary of state she could have put on 16 Congressional elections across the state in one week from the selection of candidates. And then specify how she would do it, including which vendors she would use, how she would prepare for the contests and which local election officials would agree that it was doable.

Dreier, chairman of the Rules Committee, has been somewhat more realistic. In his letter to Roll Call last month, Dreier said the bill is “a starting point.”

Nearly two years after Sept. 11, 2001, after lengthy consideration of the issues by the House Working Group and the Continuity of Government Commission, among others, two senior chairmen introduce a bill that is merely a starting point? It took two years to do that? The fact is that three weeks — or double, or triple that — will not allow the country to hold reasonable elections, with full participation by candidates, parties and voters, to replenish the House.

This bill is basically an emotional response — call it denial, if you wish — to the very real problem Congress faces ensuring that it continues to function as a representative legislative body if there is a devastating attack on Washington. None of the members of the Continuity Commission — including co-Chairmen Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Lloyd Cutler, former Speakers Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Thomas Foley (D-Wash.), former Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.), former White House Chiefs of Staff Ken Duberstein and Leon Panetta, former Cabinet members Lynn Martin and Donna Shalala, former Solicitor General Charles Fried, and so on — started out favoring a constitutional amendment for temporary appointments in the case of a dire catastrophe. None of us likes constitutional amendments as an alternative to legislating. All of us revere the House.

But we all came to an inexorable conclusion. If there are huge numbers of dead or incapacitated Members of the House, a resort to special elections would leave a gap of two to three months without a House or with a House wildly unrepresentative politically or geographically of the country. If large numbers were incapacitated, special elections would not work unless the Members were removed, perhaps forcibly or without their knowledge or direct permission, from their seats — even if they were ready to resume them in five or six months.

Those outcomes are not acceptable. Consider just some of the things done in the three weeks after Sept. 11 (when even under the Sensenbrenner/Dreier bill there would be no House): benefits to families of public service officers killed or seriously injured as a result of the attacks; $40 billion in emergency supplemental funds for recovery and response; legislation authorizing the use of military force to respond to those responsible for the attacks; a joint resolution condemning the attacks; and the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act to preserve the viability of air transport.

Now consider some of the other major actions taken in the next nine weeks: immigration legislation regarding nonimmigrant “S” visas for those who supply important information to law enforcement agencies (week four); legislation to honor fallen firefighters (week six); the USA Patriot Act and legislation authorizing the president to waive security assistance restrictions for Pakistan (week seven); the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (week 11); and extra funding for counterterrorism (week 12).

Do we really want to countenance the possibility that such actions would be taken by a form of martial law? Do we want to have the House shaped by elections held in chaos and haste, with sizable shares of the electorate frozen out? I think not. None of us wants appointments to the House. Certainly, none of us wants them to be routine — they should be triggered only by the most dire of circumstances. But they are the only balanced and realistic alternative, when one thinks through the options and the tradeoffs. The Senate, at least, has begun to grapple seriously with this problem, with hearings on Congress and presidential succession ahead in the coming two weeks. I hope the House will follow suit and that more of its Members will put some rigorous thought into the real problems and focus on real solutions.

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