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In Denial

Nobody likes to think about catastrophe, but the House leadership is reaching new heights of denial by proposing a “sense of the House” resolution declaring that a federal election will never be postponed, and that no agency or individual will be granted the authority to postpone a presidential election.

The issue is sensitive and should not be discussed lightly. But we submit that just as Congress and the executive branch made provisions during the Cold War to relocate in the event of a nuclear threat against Washington, it ought to at least think about what to do in the event of a big terrorist attack or an assassination.

In drafting their resolution, House leaders think they are expressing due defiance toward the likes of Osama bin Laden and asserting the primacy of Congress. As Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said, the resolution “will send a message around our nation and the world that the United States will not be bullied by terrorism.”

Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) said he drafted the resolution in response to “dangerous talk” suggesting that “one person” in the executive branch be given authority to postpone the presidential election. He was referring to warnings by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge that terrorists might try to disrupt the U.S. election, perhaps as they did earlier this year in Spain, as well as to a letter Ridge received from the chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, DeForest Soaries, that his agency might have the expertise to make contingency plans for a terrorist attack.

Ney said, “I can tell you Secretary Ridge has no option but to defer to Congress on this. He’s Homeland Security. He’s not a Member of Congress. He has no option.” On this, we agree. Decisions of this magnitude should not be made by anyone in the executive branch, and surely not by an obscure agency charged less than two years ago with providing technical assistance on electronic voting machines. These decisions should be made by Congress — and Congress should be thinking right now about how to exercise this responsibility, rather than pretending it doesn’t have it.

Some Members have suggested that states could act to reschedule the election if a localized catastrophe occurred. But this line of thinking entails two problems. First, the U.S. Constitution vests in Congress the responsibility to decide when national elections take place. Second, if disaster forced a postponement in, say, Ohio, it would taint the national result to hold a late election there after results were known everywhere else in the country.

Yet only a limited number of scenarios — say, an assassination, or the failure of a regional electric grid — would justify such a radical step. The diffuse nature of the electoral-college system means that a terrorist attack in one place need not require a national postponement, especially if the attack affects a smaller state whose votes do not affect the final outcome. The ability to postpone a national election on a flimsy, hair-trigger basis would surely encourage the losing party, if it controls Congress or the White House, to ram through a do-over election — an unprecedented step that’s no longer unimaginable given today’s partisan zealotries.

The only sensible way to handle this situation is to establish the rules in advance, after thoughtful deliberation and with bipartisan support. AEI scholar (and Roll Call contributor) Norman Ornstein has suggested that Congress establish a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission and vest in this panel the power to decide whether the election needed to be postponed. That may or may not be the best solution, but there ought to be one. It’s up to Congress to find one, not just declare that it’s “dangerous” to think about danger.