Daniel W. Drezner

This officially scares the s*** out of me

Matt Drudge links to the following Michael Isikoff exclusive in Newsweek: American counterterrorism officials, citing what they call “alarming” intelligence about a possible Qaeda strike inside the United States this fall, are reviewing a proposal that could allow for the postponement of the November presidential election in the event of such an attack, NEWSWEEK has ...

Matt Drudge links to the following Michael Isikoff exclusive in Newsweek:

American counterterrorism officials, citing what they call “alarming” intelligence about a possible Qaeda strike inside the United States this fall, are reviewing a proposal that could allow for the postponement of the November presidential election in the event of such an attack, NEWSWEEK has learned…. Ridge’s department last week asked the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to analyze what legal steps would be needed to permit the postponement of the election were an attack to take place. Justice was specifically asked to review a recent letter to Ridge from DeForest B. Soaries Jr., chairman of the newly created U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Soaries noted that, while a primary election in New York on September 11, 2001, was quickly suspended by that state’s Board of Elections after the attacks that morning, “the federal government has no agency that has the statutory authority to cancel and reschedule a federal election.” Soaries, a Bush appointee who two years ago was an unsuccessful GOP candidate for Congress, wants Ridge to seek emergency legislation from Congress empowering his agency to make such a call. Homeland officials say that as drastic as such proposals sound, they are taking them seriously—along with other possible contingency plans in the event of an election-eve or Election Day attack. “We are reviewing the issue to determine what steps need to be taken to secure the election,” says Brian Roehrkasse, a Homeland spokesman.

Stephen Green thinks this idea is so politically stupid that it must be a disinformation campaign to fool Al Qaeda. James Joyner thinks this kind of contingency planning is unfortunate but inevitable:

Everyone seems to be focusing on the public psyche after an attack and its impact on swinging votes. It seems to me there are other considerations. What if a terrorist attack made voting impossible in New York City, Chicago, or San Francisco? That could conceivably create incredibly illegitimate results in a close presidential election–not to mention Senate races. Would we really want to re-elect President Bush narrowly in a contest where Kerry strongholds were unable to participate?

Joe Gandelman concurs:

You do NOT want Al Qaeda to be able to influence an election. But if you postpone an election YOU are influencing an election and assuming that voting choices will be made due due to the attack and not on other matters as well.

Replace “YOU” with “The Bush administration” — since they’re the one’s making this call — and Gandelman’s graf has a much more sinister cast to it. I have a pretty low tolerance for conspiracy theories. That said, my gut reaction is that this proposal is so stupid that the administration would deserve having the craziest conspiracy theories out there sticking to them if they took this idea seriously. Actually, it’s worse than that — what does it say that three years after 9/11, the Bush administration’s counterterrorism and homeland defense policies are so weak that they have to contemplate changing the national election date rather than relying in our supposedly enhanced defences? UPDATE: Patrick Belton has some thoughts that are more sophisticated than my gut instinct but make pretty much the same point. ANOTHER UPDATE: Hmmm…. re-reading the Isikoff story, I’ll walk back my indignation just a bit. My first impression — from Isikoff’s lead graf — was that Ridge and DHS wanted to ability to postpone Election Day because they anticipated an attack. But that’s not the case — they want the authority to postpone after an attack has taken place that’s close to or on Election Day. I still think this is a very, very, very bad idea, but it’s a slightly less conspiracy-prone idea than at first blush. A THIRD UPDATE: Eugene Volokh and Jack Balkin have some useful thoughts on the matter. Balkin in particular more eloquently delineates my two concerns:

The fact that a terrorist attack might influence voters one way or the other is not a reason to cancel an election. Lots of things happen before elections that can influence voters. Rather, the reason to postpone an election is that it is simply not possible to conduct the election in a particular jurisdiction, because, for example, there are dead bodies lying everywhere or buildings have been blown up and local services have to be diverted to matters of life and death. The September 11th attacks shut down large parts of New York and diverted essential services. It was no time to have an election. If a terrorist attack occurred on Election Day, it would make sense to postpone the election in the place where the attack occurred, but not everywhere in the country. (Note that under current law, states may pass new legislation rescheduling the election without Congress’s intervention). One can imagine situations in which an election would have to be postponed everywhere, but they would be truly terrible situations, ones that effectively brought the entire country to a halt…. [F]inally, there are important structural reasons why the decision to postpone an election should rest in Congress, and should not be delegated to the Executive, as the Office of Homeland Security has recently suggested. The reason is that the Executive focuses decisionmaking in one person who is a member of one political party, while Congress consists of members of both parties representing all different parts of the country. There is an enormous temptation for the Executive to overstate the danger in order to keep itself in power and bolster its chances in a postponed election. To be sure, there is also a danger of self-dealing in Congress. Nevertheless, that danger is mitigated by the fact that Congress is not unitary in the same way that the Executive is. If Congress were to consider such legislation, even in an emergency, the need to form a bipartisan consensus would be very strong, and this would help ensure that this very difficult decision was made for the right reasons.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies. His latest book is The Toddler in Chief. Twitter: @dandrezner

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