Tuesday, July 13, 2004

On delaying the national elections (2004)

This thought seems innocent enough. What would happen if a major "attack "of some kind occurred on or near election day? Would we hold the election anyway?

In Spain a few months ago, shortly before their latest national elections, a major al Qaeda attack occurred. The shocked populace voted in that election overwhelmingly against the incumbants, and for the party calling for Spain to pull out of Iraq and this so-called war on Terror. Note that Spain was one of the few major backers of the U.S. and U.K. invasion of Iraq, going so far as to host the summit at which this was planned. For Spain to later pull out of the invasion which it helped plan should be a black eye to the whole war on Iraq, but somehow black eye never happened.

This week we have another round of vague warnings by Homeland Defense Secretary Ridge and FBI Director Mueller with "no specific or credible information about threats to the political conventions", and at the same time there are discussions over whether to delay election day based on those vague threats. Say what?

Amongst the ravings of the conspiracy-theorists which I'd read a few years ago was this scenario:

  • Step 1: In the open, on national news, conduct a semi-legal "coup" to force the "election" of a chosen set of people.
  • Step 2: These people use terrorist threats as a lever to destroy certain civil liberties.
  • Step 3: Somehow the next election is missed, and that chosen set of people stay in power.

Steps 1 and 2 have actually happened, and now we're facing step 3 being discussed. Except that the discussion at the moment isn't to cancel having elections altogether, but to "delay". Except that "delay" must first mean "cancel" and then "reschedule". Now, suppose "they" were able to manufacture terrorist threat after terrorist threat and continually delay the election? Would that not create the condition in which step 3 would exist, if you can persist with a terrorist threat for long enough that the election never gets rescheduled?

When I first read that outlined projected sequence of events, I first dismissed it - how could that possibly happen? Why would it happen? But then we've had the September 11, 2001 attacks happen, and all the resulting events such as the "Patriot Act" which destroyed a wide swath of civil liberties. As a result, the current administration has completely lost its credibility to me (due to the large number of impeachable offenses they've committed), and now I question everything they say. I can only assume most of what they say is false, and that it's feeding some hidden and sinister agenda. If they were to have been behaving with more moral integrity (as Bush claimed he would), then I expect I'd never have begun to doubt them. This is a "by your actions ye shall know them" scenario, deceitful liars that they are.

So let's analyse this a little bit. Here's an article giving an overview of the proposed delay.

In the article it says the leader of the US Election Assistance Commission, DeForest Soaries Jr., sent a letter to Homeland Defense Secretary Ridge proposing that his commission be charged with planning for a delay of the national elections if necessary. As a result this has Ridge's department conducting a review of what would be required to lay the legal framework for the delay (that is, cancellation and rescheduling) of an national election.

In case you, like me, have never heard of the US Election Assistance Commission, here are the commission web sites.

The commission was formed in the wake of the fiasco during the 2000 election. They were charged with updating the conduct of elections, especially in the voting technology used. Most of the duties and responsibilities listed above have to do with standards setting for voting machines, usability studies for voting machines, and the like. It's an advisory commission.

To now charge them with deciding when or if the election can be safely held, and what "safely held" means is open to debate, is a wild divergence from their current charter. Why cannot the Federal Election Commission (FEC) be put in charge of this issue, as they have been all along? Why is an advisory commission asking for regulatory power? And why are we at all considering this change of election date in the first place?

This only raises a lot of questions, doesn't it? So let's consider them in turn.

Under what circumstances would a delay in the election date be valid?

As the CNN article quotes Sen. Dianne Feinstein: "I don't think there's an argument that can be made, for the first time in our history, to delay an election. We hold elections in the middle of war, in the middle of earthquakes, in the middle of whatever it takes. The election is a statutory election. It should go ahead, on schedule, and we should not change it."

In other words, what is the national capacity to physically conduct an election and count the votes of Americans. Is there a condition under which the voting process itself could be greatly hindered in a way where it's appropriate to delay?

Turning my imagination loose for a moment, if there were a rampant threat all across the country maybe it would be appropriate to change the election day. Such a threat would have to affect a majority of voting precincts, and be majorly disruptive. But I am having a hard time thinking up a specific form of attack that would have these attributes. If the attack were physical, it would require an al Qaeda cell in a large number of precincts (for example, a drive-by shooting of the people queuing up to vote). The physical security at polling places I've used has been very lax, but on the other hand there are a vastly huge number of polling places which would make it daunting to attack a significant number of them.

In Spain it was a single attack of spectacular scale. That single attack shifted the vote so that the incumbants fell out of power, with Spain quickly withdrawing from Iraq. To stage an attack like that in the U.S. would be a smaller operation than one which would directly attack hundreds of polling places. Such an attack is of a size which al Qaeda has performed before (e.g. September 11, 2001). And we saw then how easily the CNN/NBC/CBS/ABC/Fox/etc hype machines can go into action making anything be the most spectacular extravagenza of all time, thereby amplyfying whatever emotional effect was created from the event of the moment, whatever form it happens to take.

Therefore we can assume that an attack which damaged a few "national landmark" type buildings in a spectacular way might end up being enough to cause consternation in the style of the event in Spain a few months ago.

But, would that really affect the nations ability to conduct a vote? Such an attack would not effect any significant number of polling places, so therefore the vote would be easily conducted just as it always has been (in the middle of war, earthquakes, or whatever). I don't think such an attack would affect the nations ability to physically conduct a vote.

What it would affect is the outcome of the vote. One thing the September 11, 2001 events showed is how quickly consensus can be changed. A spectacular event occurred, and all of a sudden the country is invading Afghanistan, looking for terrorists behind every tree, and so on ultimately leading to the (potentially illegal) invasion of Iraq.

What does it mean to 'safely hold' an election? What is considered a 'threat' to the election?

We've already seen that it would be immensely difficult for an organization to affect a significant number of polling places even with the lax physical security, and therefore it would be immensely difficult for an organization to undermine the physical conduct of the voting process. That leaves me wondering what type of "threat" would be sufficient.

For example, the administration is probably worried over the low approval rating the Bush Administration has right now (note: if they hadn't been lying so much, maybe they'd have a better approval rating). They might be thinking along the lines of, if a terror attack occurred, would it cause the approval rating to sink even further, national anger to rise, and thereby causing the administration to be voted out of office?

In other words, would the decision makers see the potential "threat" as being a threat to the current administrations ability to stay in power? Or would they see it as "can we conduct the election"? What's worse is that the decision makers are a Federal commission, appointed by the current President, and therefore part of the current Administration, and they are no doubt highly incentivised to keep the current Administration in power.