July 13, 2004

What's the Time? It's Time to Get Shrill

So the Administration has floated the idea of postponing elections in the event of a terrorist attack. To be specific:

DeForest B. Soaries Jr., chairman of the newly created U.S. Election Assistance Commission... 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.

Of the blogospheric commentary on this, I think Josh Marshall gets it exactly right:

The rationale is that we need to have some policy in place for a possible election postponement before some precipitating event actually occurs. But my understanding is that we already have a policy in place on postponements: i.e., we don't do them.

And Mr. Soaries? There's a reason why no federal agency has the statutory authority to cancel an election. It's because ELECTIONS ARE THE ESSENCE OF OUR POLITICAL SYSTEM. It would be extraordinarily dangerous to give the government the power to call them off. And it's not reassuring when you say that you're "seeking to establish a process to do so should it become necessary." Once some panel has the power to call off elections, it might do so, and by the time (if ever) it explains itself it'll be too late to explain itself.

In an ideal world, maybe it would be good to have a process put in place to deal with disruption of an election. But that's not the world we live in. We live in a world where any such decision would be made by people who, inevitably, would be appointed by and beholden to the people in power, and will inevitably be tainted by politics.

(There is the question: What if it makes it impossible to hold a vote--for instance, if a polling place is blown up? Even so, I think it'd be better to deal with it post facto. If there's consensus that the vote was obstructed, then there should be consensus to pass a law allowing for an emergency revote. If there's not consensus to allow that, then there wasn't enough consensus to justify the much more drastic step of cancelling the election.)

This idea seems to have gone down like a lead balloon, but I'm chilled that the Administration thought it was a good idea to even float it. (And I'm not reassured by the fact that it's been known to resurrect unpopular ideas under different names.)

I'm particularly disturbed by this quote:

The issue has been raised against the backdrop of bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people and injured 2,000 others on March 11, three days before the Spanish national elections. The bombings were blamed in part for the defeat of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar [sic--I think Aznar was retiring, but his party was defeated], who strongly supported the war in Iraq.

If all that's meant is that Al Qaeda might strike close to the elections, as they did in Madrid, fine. But if it's meant that we shouldn't be voting at a time when a recent terrorist attack might influence elections, that's appalling. No one has the right to decide what issues should affect voters' votes. This is a democracy; we can vote on whatever issues we like. Jack Balkin:

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.

(Balkin also has intelligent comments on why Aznar's party really lost, and invaluable legal analysis.)

And, from a couple of liberal bloggers, I'd like to see more anger, please. The Administration is drawing up contingency plans to cancel the elections; that ain't paranoia. Do you want a signed postcard from them saying "Democracy isn't important to us?" I don't think that they would cancel the election, even if they could have their way, but I think we need to be very very careful.

And as you may guess from the title of this post, the no-politics policy is at an end. I still will try to keep this a mostly non-politics site, but there are some things I just won't be able to keep my mouth shut about.

[UPDATE: Kevin Drum says it won't happen, and he's right. But that's not the point. The point is that it should have been unthinkable to propose this.]

Posted by Matt Weiner at July 13, 2004 11:13 AM