Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, July 25, 2004
by Susan Ives
Earlier this month, Newsweek reported that the federal government is considering the possibility of postponing the presidential election if there is a terrorist attack or the threat of an attack on Election Day.
The issue was raised by DeForest Soaries Jr., chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which just opened its doors in March. The commission advises states and local authorities on the best practices in running elections, especially in navigating the provisions of the Help America Vote Act. Motor voters. Electronic voting. Hanging chads. Stuff like that.
The Rev. Dr. Soaries is pastor of the 7,000-member First Baptist Church of Lincoln Green in Somerset, N.J., and served as New Jersey secretary of state, appointed by then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.
He ran and lost as the GOP candidate for New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District in 2002 and is a big supporter — and beneficiary — of the faith-based initiative, which funnels government social services money to religious programs.
Soaries wrote to Tom Ridge at Homeland Security, pointing out that no one appears to have the constitutional authority to postpone an election. He modestly suggested his agency was willing to make the call. Ridge has his guys at Justice looking into it.
Soaries cited the impact of the Madrid railway bombings, only three days before the national elections. The Spanish government toppled. He also noted that a New York primary election was in progress on Sept. 11, 2001. The State Board of Elections locked the ballot boxes and rescheduled the primary.
Still, the very idea of postponing a presidential election is repellent.
If there is one defining characteristic of democracy, it is voting. Free elections? You’re a democracy. No free elections? You’re a dictatorship. If we want to remain a democracy, we will have an election Nov. 2 come hell, high water or Osama bin Laden.
We managed to hold elections in the middle of the Civil War. We managed to hold elections in the middle of World War II. Iraq is planning to hold its election in January, despite assassinations and car bombs. Despite everything.
We can vote too. Despite anything. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice agrees. “No one is thinking of postponing the elections,” she said.
Good, Condi. Hold onto that thought.
Two things frighten me about the very nature of the question.
First, it’s disastrous to suggest putting such a crucial decision in the hands of partisan agency heads. Soaries. Ridge. Ashcroft. Rice. All White House appointees. Republicans should not make this decision. Neither should Democrats.
If such a decision must be made — if we were to have another major terrorist attack, heaven forbid — it should be made by a neutral party. As much as I disagreed with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the 2000 Florida election debacle, it is the closest we have to a disinterested body that could make such a somber judgment on short notice. Get the decision out of blatantly partisan hands.
Second, no such decision should even be contemplated if all there is a threat of a terrorist attack. Let’s face it: This administration’s ability to objectively evaluate intelligence information is, at best, suspect. If the White House were to cancel the election because the threat level was elevated, the people would rightly rise up and rebel.
All that said, it’s smart to think this through now. Soaries seems like a good guy and I hope that is his intent: Let’s hash this out in July, in the open, rather than in November, behind closed doors.
He made one statement that was on target. He asked Homeland Security to make sure that any security measures to be put in place on Election Day will not intimidate minorities.
As an African American living in one of the country’s most wealthy counties, I’m sure Soaries has experienced racial profiling. He’s right to keep it out of our polling places. Our open polling places. Closing them is not an option.