Order Code RL32654
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Safeguarding Federal Elections
from Possible Terrorist Attack:
Issues and Options for Congress
October 27, 2004
name redacted, Coordinator
Senior Specialist in Science and Technology
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Specialist in American National Government
Government and Finance Division
name redacted and name redacted
American Law Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Safeguarding Federal Elections from PossibleTerrorist
Attack: Issues and Options for Congress
Concerns have arisen that terrorist attacks near the November 2, 2004 federal
election might be launched to disrupt voting and affect the outcome. As a result,
questions have arisen about what might be done both to prevent such attacks and to
respond to any that occur. Deliberations have centered largely around two questions:
If a terrorist attack occurs, should the election be postponed, in whole or in part, and
if so, by whom and under what authority? What steps should and are being taken to
enhance security for the election?
Questions about election postponement include who has the constitutional
authority, to whom could such power be delegated, and what legal limitations exist.
Congressional authority to regulate elections may vary depending on what contest or
contests are affected. The executive branch does not currently have authority to set
or change the times of elections, a power reserved for Congress under the
Constitution, although Congress may be able to delegate such authority. Either
Congress or the states might also pass legislation in response to a terrorist attack that
would change the timing of any elections that were affected.
Some states have enacted statutes providing for the temporary postponement of
elections. Many state statutes also grant the Governor the power to suspend certain
state laws during an emergency. Those statutes might also be able to be used to
postpone the general presidential election in the state during an emergency. Actual
postponement of elections has occurred in relatively few cases over the last 150
years. The best known recent examples are the New York state primary scheduled
for September 11, 2001, and the Florida primary scheduled on September 1, 1992,
shortly after Hurricane Andrew. In New York, the entire election was rescheduled;
in Florida, only Dade County was rescheduled. In many other cases in the United
States and other countries, elections have been held despite difficult situations arising
from natural events or conflicts.
It is generally the responsibility of state and local governments to provide
security at polling places. State and local laws regarding police presence vary, with
some states prohibiting and others requiring it. Federal law prohibits the use of
federal military forces at the polls except “to repel armed enemies of the United
States.” A recently released guide for state election-security planning recommends
establishment of planning teams and preparation for a range of possible scenarios.
Reactions of state and local officials have varied, with some intending to make as
few visible changes as possible and others planning to increase police presence or
even move polling places.
Whether Congress considers actions to safeguard elections may depend on
events associated with U.S. elections or those in other countries. Among the options
are to take no legislative action, to explicitly delegate authority to the executive
branch to the extent permitted by the Constitution, to provide mechanisms for
improved coordination, and to encourage early and absentee voting. All these
options have some potential benefits but also significant potential disadvantages.
Background . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Election Postponement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
Constitutional Authority and Federal Law . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
Federal Elections . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
State Elections . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Executive Branch Power . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
State Laws . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Examples of State Statutes Regarding Emergency Election Postponement . 5
Florida . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Georgia . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Hawaii . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
Louisiana . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
Maryland . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
New York . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
North Carolina . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Examples of State Statutes Granting Emergency Powers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Examples from State Elections . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
New York Primary Election on September 11, 2001 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
Florida September 1, 1992 Primary Election (Hurricane Andrew) . . . . 9
Hawaii September 19, 1992 Primary Election (Hurricane Iniki)
Held on Schedule . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
Maine September 13, 1954 General Election (Hurricane Edna)
Held Despite Damage . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
Other Weather-related Election Delays . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
Foreign Elections Sometimes Held Under Difficult Conditions . . . . . . . . . 13
Colombia 1990 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Peru 1991 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Cambodia 1993 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Bosnia 1996 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
Taiwan, 1996 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
Factors Governing Decisions to Postpone Elections . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
The Uniform Election Day in November . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
Louisiana’s Open Primary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
Early Voting . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
A Federal Election May Be Postponed Because of the
Voting Rights Act . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
The Civil War Amendments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
Concluding Observations About Election Postponement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
Security at the Polling Place . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20
Impact of Early and Absentee Voting . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
Options for Congress . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
Take No Action . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
Delegate Authority for Safeguarding Elections to the
Executive Branch . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23
Treat Security as an Aspect of Continuity of Government . . . . . . . . . 23
Provide Mechanisms for Improved Coordination among States on
Election Security . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23
Encourage Early Voting and Absentee Voting . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23
Safeguarding Federal Elections from
Possible Terrorist Attack: Issues and
Options for Congress
The terrorist bombings that occurred in Spain on March 11, 2004, before that
country’s national election, were considered by many to have had a significant impact
on the outcome of that election.1 Many observers believed that such was their intent.
Concerns then arose that terrorist attacks in the United States near the time of the
November 2 federal election could also be aimed at affecting the outcome of that
election. In early July, news media began reporting such concerns from the Bush
Administration and that the Department of Justice was considering the question of
federal authority to postpone the election.2 Subsequently, administration officials
emphasized that the election would proceed as scheduled. For example, on July 13,
Election Assistance Commission (EAC) Chairman DeForest Soaries released a
public statement declaring “There are no circumstances that could justify the
postponement or cancellation of a presidential election in the United States.”3
However, the question of polling place vulnerabilities persists. As a result,
questions have arisen about what responses might be taken both to prevent such
attacks and respond to them should they occur. Deliberations have been affected not
only by concerns about homeland security in the wake of the terrorist attacks of
September 11, 2001, but also by the expected closeness of the presidential election
and the resulting highly charged nature of the contest. Deliberations and debate have
centered largely around two questions:
If a terrorist attack occurred, should the election be postponed, in
whole or in part, and if so, by whom and under what authority?
What steps should and are being taken to enhance security for the
Whether the impact resulted from the fact of the bombings or the nature of the incumbent
government’s subsequent reaction remains in dispute.
See, for example, Michael Isikoff, “Election Day Worries,” Newsweek, 19 July 2004, p.
Election Assistance Commission, “Chairman Soaries’ Statement Concerning the Status
of the November Presidential Election,” 13 July 2004,
To address those questions, this report discusses constitutional authority and
federal and state laws regarding the postponement of federal elections, as well as
selected experiences with past elections, both in the United States and abroad. It also
discusses federal authority regarding the security of polling places, and federal efforts
specifically aimed at election security. It does not discuss broader efforts aimed at
preventing terrorist attacks or other questions regarding the administration or
integrity of the November 2004 election.
In the United States, elections are administered by state and local governments.
While Congress has limited power to regulate federal elections, it has rarely
exercised that authority except with respect to the question of enfranchisement of
voters. However, in response to the problems arising from the November 2000
election for President, Congress enacted the Help America Vote Act of 2002
(HAVA). The act substantially enhanced the federal role in election administration,
including the establishment of the EAC, a new, independent federal agency, to
provide support and guidance to state and local election officials. The EAC does not,
however, have any regulatory authority. HAVA establishes requirements for voting
systems, voter registration, and other aspects of election administration. It does not
specifically address issues relating to election postponement or polling place security,
although some constitutional provisions and earlier legislation are relevant.
Constitutional Authority and Federal Law
Basic questions relating to election postponement include who has the
constitutional authority to postpone elections, to whom could such power be
delegated, and what legal limitations exist to such a postponement.4 Congress has
authority to regulate elections, and that authority may vary depending on whether the
election is for the Presidency, the House, the Senate, or for state or local offices.
While the executive branch has significant delegated authority regarding some
aspects of election law, that authority does not currently extend to setting or changing
the times of elections.
Under a variety of possible scenarios that could arise as a result of a terrorist
attack before or during an election, either Congress or the states might pass
legislation that would affect the timing of those elections. The executive branch does
not currently have that power, but Congress may be able to delegate that authority to
the executive branch.
Federal Elections. The authority to postpone an election would appear to be
a natural corollary of the power to set the time for an election. The authority to set the
For more detailed information on this topic, see (name redacted),
Power to Postpone Elections, CRS Report RL32471, 14 July 2004, and (name redacted),
Postponement and Rescheduling of Elections to Federal Office, CRS Report RL32623, 4
date of elections appears to derive principally from two constitutional provisions,
Article I, §4, cl. 1, and Article II, §1, cl. 4. The text of the Constitution does not
appear to contain a constitutional role for the executive branch in such decisions.
The Supreme Court and lower courts have interpreted the language of Article
I, § 4, cl. 1 to mean that Congress has extensive power to regulate most elements of
a congressional election.5 It would appear that Congress would therefore have broad
authority to postpone elections so as to account for emergency situations. Although
Congress has set the election date by statute, it would still appear to be within
Congress’s power to postpone a House and Senate election.6
While the power of Congress to regulate presidential elections is not as
extensive as its power over House and Senate elections,7 Article II, §1, cl. 4 does
provide that Congress may determine the “time” of choosing presidential electors.
Although Congress does not have the explicit authority to regulate other aspects of
presidential elections, case law does indicate that Congress may have powers
extending beyond establishing the time of choosing the electors.8 The power of
Congress to protect the integrity of the presidential election, combined with its
authority to set the time of election, would also seem to provide Congress the power
to postpone elections because of a national emergency.
285 U.S. at 366. See Roudebush v. Hartke, 405 U.S. 15, 24-25 (1972) (state’s authority
to regulate recount of elections); United States v. Gradwell, 243 U.S. 476, 483 (1917) (full
authority over federal election process, from registration to certification of results); United
States v. Mosley, 238 U.S. 383, 386 (1915) (authority to enforce the right to cast ballot and
have ballot counted); In re Coy, 127 U.S. 731, 752 (1888) (authority to regulate conduct at
any election coinciding with federal contest); Ex parte Yarbrough, 110 U.S. 651, 662 (1884)
(authority to make additional laws for free, pure, and safe exercise of right to vote); Ex parte
Clarke, 100 U.S. 399, 404 (1879) (authority to punish state election officers for violation of
state duties vis-a-vis congressional elections). See also United States v. Simms, 508 F.Supp.
1179, 1183-85 (W.D. La.1979) (criminalizing payments in reference to registration or voting
does not offend Tenth Amendment); Prigmore v. Renfro, 356 F.Supp. 427, 430 (N.D.
Ala.1972) (absentee ballot program upheld as applied to federal elections), aff’d, 410 U.S.
919 (1973); Fowler v. Adams, 315 F.Supp. 592, 594 (M.D. Fla.1970), appeal dismissed, 400
U.S. 986 (1971) (authority to exact 5 percent filing fee for congressional elections).
It would appear, however, that Congress could not postpone elections indefinitely, as the
Constitution requires that Members of the House of Representatives shall be chosen “every
second year,” U.S. Const. Art. I, § 2, cl. 1, and Senators shall be chosen for terms of “six
years.” U.S. Const., Amend. XVII. See also U.S. Const. Amend. XX (specifying that the
terms of the President and Vice-President shall end January 20th, and those of Senators and
Representatives shall end January 3rd).
Despite modern state practice providing for popular voting for electors, the appointment
of presidential electors was historically and remains today a power of the state legislatures.
For instance, a state would still retain the authority to use an alternative method of choosing
presidential electors besides popular elections.
For instance, the Supreme Court has allowed congressional regulation of political
committees which seek to influence presidential elections, arguing that such legislation is
justified by the need to preserve the integrity of such elections. See Burroughs v. United
States, 290 U.S. 534 (1934).
State Elections. Congress does not have general legislative authority to
regulate the manner and procedures used for elections at the state and local level.
Congress does have extensive authority under the Civil War Amendments,9 the 19th
Amendment,10 the 24th Amendment,11 and the 26th Amendment12 to prevent
discrimination in access to voting, and it has exercised that power extensively over
state and local, as well as federal, elections.13 However, absent some relationship to
the issues addressed by these amendments, such as the postponement of a state
election to deal with issues of discrimination, Congress would not appear to have the
authority to regulate the time of the state elections.
Executive Branch Power. The executive branch does not appear to
currently have the authority to establish or postpone the dates of elections at either
the federal or state level even in an emergency.14 The question arises, however,
whether Congress could delegate power to the executive branch. Generally, under
separation of power doctrine, Congress may delegate power to the executive branch
so long as it includes standards so that a court can “ascertain whether the will of
Congress has been obeyed.”15 There is no apparent reason why this doctrine would
not extend to the power of Congress to set the time of national elections.16 Thus, as
U.S. Const., Amend. XIII (prohibiting slavery), Amend. XIV (due process and equal
protection) and Amend. XV (voting rights).
“The rights of citizens to vote shall not be denied . . . on account of sex.”
“The rights of citizens to vote . . . shall not be denied . . . by reason of failure to pay a poll
tax . . . .”
“The right of citizens . . . to vote shall not be denied . . . on account of age.”
See, e.g., Voting Rights Act of 1965, Pub. L. No. 89-110, 79 Stat. 437 (codified as
amended at 42 U.S.C. §§ 1971, 1973-1973bb-1 (1992)). For background on the Voting
Rights Act, see (name redacted), The Voting Rights Act of 1965: A Legal Overview,
CRS Report 91-736, 7 October 1991.
It is possible, however, that the executive branch could make decisions that would make
it difficult or impractical for a particular state or federal election to occur. For instance, a
variety of situations could occur under which the executive branch might seek to limit the
movement of citizens under its emergency powers. See Harold Relyea, National Emergency
Powers, CRS Report 98-505, 23 September. However, exercise of such power would not
appear to have the legal effect of delaying an election, nor would it vest the executive branch
with the authority to reschedule the election. The legal resolution of an election during
which significant numbers of persons fail to reach the polls due to the actions of the
executive branch is beyond the scope of this report.
Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361, 379 (1989).
See Skinner v. Mid-America Pipeline Co., 490 U.S. 212, 220-221 (1989). In Skinner, the
Court rejected the argument that the Taxing Clause, U.S. Const., Article I, § 8, cl. 1, should
be treated differently for purposes of delegation. “We discern nothing in th[e] placement of
the Taxing Clause that would distinguish Congress’s power to tax from its other enumerated
powers - such as its commerce powers, its power to ‘raise and support Armies,’ its power
to borrow money, or its power to ‘make Rules for the Government’ - in terms of the scope
and degree of discretionary authority that Congress may delegate to the Executive in order
that the President may ‘take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.’” But see Amy
long as Congress set standards for the executive branch to implement such a
postponement,17 it would appear that Congress could enact a statute delegating to the
executive branch the authority to postpone an election.
Some states have enacted statutes providing for the temporary postponement of
elections within their respective jurisdictions for various reasons. State laws vary,
but an examination of a selection of state statutes may be instructive. Relevant
statutes are summarized for the following states: Florida, Georgia, Hawaii,
Louisiana, Maryland, New York, and North Carolina. In the event of emergencies
or disasters, it appears that these laws might provide for the postponement of the
general presidential election within the state.18 In addition, examples of state statutes
that grant the Governor the power to suspend certain state laws during an emergency
are included. Although these statutes do not mention elections, they might be able
to be used to postpone the general presidential election in an emergency.
Examples of State Statutes Regarding Emergency Election
Following are summaries of selected state laws that provide a mechanism for
the postponement of certain elections. In the event of emergencies or disasters, it
appears that these laws might provide for the postponement of the general
presidential election within the respective state, its precincts, districts or counties:
Florida. The Governor may, upon issuing an executive order declaring a state
of emergency or impending emergency, suspend or delay any election. The
rescheduled election must be held within 10 days after the date of the delayed
election or as soon as practicable thereafter. FLA. STAT. § 101.101.733 (2004).
Georgia. In the event the Governor declares that a state of emergency or
disaster exists pursuant to state law or a federal agency declares that a state of
emergency or disaster exists, the secretary of state is authorized to postpone the date
Keller, “Members Pan Election Idea,” Roll Call, 13 July 2004) (quoting Yale Professor Jack
Balkin to the effect that Article II provides that Congress, not the executive branch, may
determine the date of presidential elections).
Arguably, Congress would need to set standards for the cancellation of the existing date
and then for the institution of a new date. Failure to provide such direction would raise
issues of separation of powers. See Clinton v. City of New York, 524 U.S. 417, 443-444
(1998)(delegation standards requires establishment of triggering conditions, limited
discretion as to whether to implement; standards may not allow President to substitute his
own policy decision.)
For more detailed information, see (name redacted), State Election Laws: Overview of
Statutes Regarding Emergency Election Postponement Within the State, CRS Report
RS21942, 22 September 2004.
of any election in the affected area. The secretary of state shall exercise the powers
granted by this section of law carefully, and any such postponement or extension
shall not exceed 45 days. GA. CODE ANN. § 21-2-50.1 (2004).
Hawaii. If the extent of damage caused by any natural disaster is such that the
ability of voters to exercise their right to vote is substantially impaired, the chief
election officer may require the registered voters of the affected precinct(s) to vote
by absentee ballot and may postpone the election in the affected precinct(s) for no
more than 21 days, provided that the postponement does not affect the election,
tabulation or distribution of results for those precincts, districts, or counties not
designated for postponement. HAW. REV. STAT. § 11-92.3 (2003).
Louisiana. Upon issuance of an executive order declaring a state of
emergency or impending emergency, the Governor may suspend or delay any
election. The Governor shall take such action only upon certification by the secretary
of state that such a state of emergency exists. As chief election officer of the parish,
a clerk of the court may bring to the attention of the secretary of state any difficulties
occurring in his parish due to natural disasters. If any delays or suspensions are
authorized by the Governor, the delayed election day shall resume or be rescheduled
as soon thereafter as is practicable. LA. REV. STAT. § 18:401.2 (2004).19
Maryland. In the event of a state of emergency, declared by the Governor in
accordance with law, that interferes with the electoral process, the emergency
proclamation may provide for the postponement, until a specific date, of the election
in part or all of the state. MD. CODE ANN. [Elections] § 8-103 (2003).
New York. A county board of elections, or the state board of elections with
respect to an election conducted in a district in the jurisdiction of more than one
county board of elections, may determine that, as the direct consequence of fire,
earthquake, tornado, explosion, power failure, act of sabotage, enemy attack or other
disaster, less than 25% of the registered voters of any city, town or village, or if the
city of New York, or any county therein, actually voted in any general election. Such
a determination shall be subject to approval by the state board of elections. If the
state board of elections makes such determination, it shall notify the board of
elections with the jurisdiction in that county that an additional day of election shall
be held. Thereafter, the county board of elections shall set a date for an additional
day for voting in the county, city, town or village affected by the statement, which
The Louisiana election emergency statute begins with the following statement of
findings: “Due to the possibility of an emergency or common disaster occurring
before or during a regularly scheduled or special election, and in
order to ensure maximum citizen participation in the electoral process
and provide a safe and orderly procedure for persons seeking to
qualify or exercise their right to vote, to minimize to whatever degree
possible a person’s exposure to danger during declared states of
emergency, and to protect the integrity of the electoral process, it is
hereby found and declared to be necessary to designate a procedure
for the emergency suspension or delay and rescheduling of qualifying,
absentee voting in person, and elections.” LA. REV. STAT. § 18:401.2
shall not be more than twenty days after the original date of the general election. NY
[Elections] LAW § 3-108 (Consol. 2004).
North Carolina. The executive director, as chief state elections official, may
exercise emergency powers to conduct an election in a district where the normal
schedule for the election is disrupted by any of the following: a natural disaster,
extremely inclement weather, an armed conflict involving U.S. armed forces or
mobilization of those forces, including the state National Guard and reserve
components. In exercising those emergency powers, the executive director shall
avoid unnecessary conflict with the provisions of this chapter of law. N.C. GEN.
STAT. § 163-27.1 (2004).
Examples of State Statutes Granting Emergency Powers
Some states statutes authorize the Governor to suspend certain state laws in the
event of an emergency. While these statutes do not specifically mention elections,
it might be possible for them to be used to postpone the general presidential election,
within the respective state, its precincts, districts or counties, in the event of an
emergency or disaster. While not an exhaustive list, the following summaries are
provided as examples of these types of state laws:
In Arizona, the Governor has the power in a “state of war emergency” to
suspend statutory procedures for conduct of state business, or the orders or rules of
any state agency, to facilitate mitigation of the effects of the emergency.20 The
California Governor has similar powers for either a state of war emergency or a state
of emergency.21 Similar powers are afforded the Governor of Illinois in the event of
a declared disaster, for a period not to exceed 30 days,22 and to the Governor of
Indiana, with the proviso that the general assembly may terminate the state of
emergency at any time.23 The Governor of Michigan may exercise similar powers
upon declaring a state of disaster or a state of emergency,24 as may the Governor of
Tennessee.25 Texas and West Virginia have similar provisions.26
ARIZ. REV. STAT. ANN. §§ 26-303(A)(1), 301(15)(2004).
CAL. GOV’T CODE ANN. §§ 8571, 8558(a), (b)(2004).
20 ILL. COMP. STAT. ANN. § 3305/7(a), 3305/4 (2004)
BURNS IND. CODE ANN. §§ 10-14-3-12(a),(d); 10-14-3-1 (2004)
MICH. COMP. LAWS ANN. §§ 30.405(1)(a); 30,402(e),(h)(2004).
TENN. CODE ANN. §§ 58-2-107; 58-2-101(4),(6)(2004).
TEX. GOV’T CODE §§ 418.016; 418.004(1)(2004); W. VA. CODE §§ 15-5-6(g); 15-5-
Examples from State Elections
To identify examples of election postponements, CRS conducted a text search
of digitized images of the New York Times and Washington Post 27 for the period
1860 to 2004, supplemented by other sources including books and periodicals such
as Congressional Quarterly’s Weekly Report. Several examples of postponements of
federal primary elections or local elections were found.28 The reasons for
postponement included natural disasters, severe weather, and, in the case of the
September 11, 2001 New York primary election, a terrorist attack. No instance was
found in which a general federal election was postponed or delayed, although it is not
possible to categorically rule out that possibility, especially for small areas, such as
precincts, where a weather event or a technical problem such as a power failure may
have come into play. The examples described include instances in which elections
either have been or could have been postponed because of unusual circumstances in
the United States, as well as several illustrative cases from other countries.
New York Primary Election on September 11, 2001. According to press
reports, elections officials in the New York City region began closing the polls by
mid-morning on September 11, 2001. Newsday reported that the “Suffolk
Democratic elections commissioner, who made the decision with Republican
counterpart Barbara Barci [said] ‘we just looked at each other and decided this was
the right thing to do.’”29 Barci cited Section 3-108 of the New York election law
giving elections officials the power to postpone an election in the event of “fire,
earthquake, tornado, explosion, power failure, act of sabotage, enemy attack or other
disaster.”30 Newsday further reported that the Nassau county elections commissioner
also closed the polls, because among other things, “many school districts were
closing their buildings, which would affect our polling places.”31 In the borough of
Queens, New York Supreme Court Justice Stephen W. Fisher issued an oral order the
morning of September 11, 2001, calling off the election in New York City. Fisher,
who had been previously appointed by the Chief Administrative Judge to “handle all
citywide election-related issues, said he acted to preserve the ‘integrity’ of the
electoral process after being ‘besieged’ by telephone requests from the New York
Board of Elections and the campaigns of the four Democratic mayoral candidates.”32
New York Governor Pataki signed an executive order about noon on September 11,
ProQuest Information and Learning Company maintains a database “that contain[s]
electronically scanned facsimile reproductions” of materials including the historical
Washington Post and New York Times. Our search of this database covered the period from
1860 to 2002.
This and the following two sections are drawn from David Huckabee, “Deciding to
Postpone Elections: Domestic and International Examples,” CRS Congressional
Distribution Memorandum, 17 August 2004, available by request.
Rick Brand, “Primary vote postponed statewide, Nassau and Suffolk among first to
cancel,” Newsday, 12 September 2001, p. W23.
“Primary Election Are Cancelled,” New York Law Journal, 12 September 2001, p. 3.
2001, halting the elections statewide,33 and the State Board of Elections notified local
elections boards within 30 minutes of the Governor’s order.34
Initial reports of how the suspended primary would be conducted when voting
resumed suggested that votes cast on September 11 would be counted. On
September 11, 2001, the counsel for the state Republican Committee said that votes
cast before the election was stopped would count.35 This interpretation appears to
comport with New York election law regarding postponement of general elections
(see above), which states in part, “in any election district in which voting machines
were used upon the original day of voting, they shall be used for the additional day
for voting. The original seal on such machines shall not be removed nor shall the
machines be unlocked until the opening of the polls on the additional day for voting”
(NY [Elections] LAW § 3-108(3)).
The primary, rescheduled for September 24, 2001, was not treated like a general
election, and votes cast on September 11 were not counted. On September 13, the
legislature and the Governor agreed to a new procedure in which “any votes cast on
September 11th [would] not be counted, but all absentee ballots duly and properly
cast” would continue to be valid and counted on September 25, 2001.36
On the eve of the rescheduled primary, the New York Times reported complaints
from many candidates that little had been done to publicize the new date, as well as
concerns about lack of voter awareness that votes cast at the polls on September 11
would not be counted.37 Media sources also reported little or no post-9/11
The Gotham Gazette also reported problems in lower Manhattan for voters and
candidates on the rescheduled primary day. The city Board of Election’s main office
was without telephones and electricity for a period after the attack, and there were no
polling places west of Broadway. To vote, persons who would have voted at those
locations were required to request absentee ballots that had to be postmarked by
September 24, 2001.38
Florida September 1, 1992 Primary Election (Hurricane Andrew).
Dade County Florida Commissioners directed the county attorney to file a federal
lawsuit seeking to delay a statewide primary election because of extensive damage
George E. Pataki, State of New York Executive Order No. 113.1, 11 September 2001.
Governor George Pataki, “Governor, legislature announce new primary election date,”
Press Release, 13 September 2001. See also McKinney’s 2001 Session Laws of New York,
vol. 1 Chapt. 298 and vol. 2 Chapt. 298-LM.
Jonathan P. Hicks, “Treading gingerly on the campaign trail,” New York Times, Sept. 23,
2001, p. A50.
Mark Berkey Gerard and Lara Naaman, “New York’s new primary day,” 24 September
2001, [http://www.gothamgazette.com/iotw/newelection], visited 15 July 2004.
resulting from Hurricane Andrew (which hit Dade County on August 24, 1992),
because approximately 200 polling places in the county were “inaccessible, badly
damaged or destroyed.”39
The primary, scheduled for September 1, included local and state races as well
as U.S. House and Senate primaries. Governor Lawton Chiles had said he lacked the
legal authority to postpone the election, contradicting Florida secretary of state Jim
Smith who “contended that Chiles’ emergency powers gave him authority to delay
the election for up to a week.”40
On August 29, at the request of county officials, Dade County Circuit Judge
Leonard Rivkind ordered that elections in the county be postponed a week.41 He also
ordered elections supervisors in seven other counties to seal the results in multicounty and statewide races until September 8, when the rescheduled Dade County
primary was to be held.42 Judge Rivkind’s order to delay elections in Dade County
was upheld by a unanimous Florida Supreme Court on August 31, but the court ruled
that the judge could not control elections supervisors in other counties, so his order
to seal the elections results in those counties was reversed. The New York Times
reported on September 1 that federal District Court Judge Michael Moore had not
taken action on the county’s federal law suit,43 so the statewide primary was held on
Conditions for voting in Dade County on September 8 varied widely. In the
Miami area and northward, electricity had been restored by September 6, and most
businesses had reopened.44 But in the Homestead and Florida City area, which
received the brunt of the storm, thousands of people were living in school buildings45
and approximately 30,000 National Guard and active-duty armed forces personnel
were assisting with the clean-up.46
The military also assisted with the election by setting up temporary polling
facilities in tents because numerous polling places had been destroyed by the
“County is filing suit in effort to postpone election in Florida,” New York Times, 27
August 1992, p. A14.
Tom Fiedler, “Storm or no, election will be held [;] local officials’ pleas to delay get no
response,” Miami Herald, 27 August 1992, p. 1B.
“September election delayed a week in storm-hit county,” New York Times, 30 August
1992, p. A22.
“Orderly voting amid chaos,” Miami Herald, 1 September 1992, p. 38A.
“Florida’s election to proceed,” New York Times,1 September 1992, p. A13.
Deborah Sontag, “Life on the fringes of ruin makes a cautious comeback,” New York
Times, 7 September 1992, p. A1.
“South Florida staggers to normality,” New York Times, 8 September 1992, p. D13.
“Most Florida storm victims regain power and water,” New York Times, 13 September
1992, p. E2.
hurricane.47 Active-duty personnel were not present at the polling places during the
September 8 primary election because of prohibitions on the use of troops at polling
places (see section on polling-place security below). Active-duty soldiers were
bivouacked at one of the polling places, and the military kept the troops away after
having sought an advisory opinion from the U.S. Department of Justice.48
Hawaii September 19, 1992 Primary Election (Hurricane Iniki) Held
Fewer than three weeks after Hurricane Andrew, a major
hurricane struck the Hawaiian island of Kauai on September 11, 1992. Kauai
suffered extensive damage from the hurricane to its older, lightly constructed
buildings and electrical power grid. The Hawaii National Guard helped civilian
authorities with the clean-up,49 and the guard played an important role in the primary
election held in Kauai on September 19, 1992.
According to Dwayne D. Yoshina, Hawaii’s chief election officer, the state’s
response to the devastation to the island of Kauai wrought by Hurricane Iniki was
governed by two main factors: First, the Lieutenant Governor, who was the state’s
chief election official, concurred with the election staff’s philosophical approach that
there was little that should cause an election to be postponed. Second, the primary
did not fall on the day of the hurricane, but came eight days later.
Mr. Yoshina said that the election staff recommended to the Lieutenant
Governor that normal conditions should be restored as soon as possible. Although
damage to Kauai was heavy, there were enough intact structures to hold elections.
National Guard personnel assisted elections officials by delivering ballots and
erecting tents to serve as emergency precincts where buildings were not usable.
Kauai’s centralized ballot counting facility was closed down because the island had
no electrical power, so the National Guard airlifted the ballots to Oahu to be
Maine September 13, 1954 General Election (Hurricane Edna) Held
In contrast the Hurricane Andrew experience, two
hurricanes that struck the state of Maine prior to the 1954 general election caused
extensive damage but did not cause an delay of the election.
The 1954 general election in Maine for federal and state offices was held on
September 13.51 Two days earlier, Hurricane Edna had struck the state with 80-milean-hour winds and eight inches of rain, causing widespread destruction and eight
Associated Press, “Hurricane-delayed election puts black woman in House,” New York
Times, 9 September 1992, p. A14.
Thomas R. Lujan, “Legal Aspects of Domestic Employment of the Army,” Parameters,
U.S. Army War College, autumn 1997, p. 83. Troops were kept away even though the
prohibition is for general and special elections, not specifically primaries. Also, it does not
apply to National Guard troops under state control.
Ibid., p. 82.
Telephone conversation with Dwayne D. Yoshina and Rex Quidilla, July 28, 2004.
Maine did not change its election day to conform with the rest of the nation until 1960.
deaths.52 Hurricane Edna had arrived two weeks after Hurricane Carol’s 75-mile
winds hit the state on August 31.53
The New York Times reported on the eve of the election that newspapers in
Maine “were apprehensive” over impacts of the storm on the election. Turnout had
been expected to be about 250,000 persons, but cleanup operations were expected to
interfere with voting. Also there were widespread power outages in the more
populous southern Maine towns and cities,54 with many blocked roads and
Although widespread, the damage was apparently not serious enough to prompt
suggestions to postpone the elections. Maine’s early elections often engendered
nationwide interest as commentators would speculate whether “as Maine goes” so
would the nation Thus, the New York Times reported that “newspaper editors, too,
were apprehensive lest election returns would be delayed by interruptions in
telephone service.”56 The storm’s impact on turnout apparently was minimal because
the combined vote in the gubernatorial election was more than 248,000.57
Other Weather-related Election Delays. Those found include events
with localized and statewide impacts, for example:
On November 5, 1965, Washington County Pennsylvania,
suspended an election in eleven precincts because of flooding
New Jersey postponed school board elections in February 1978
because of a major snow storm.59
“Eight dead in Maine; losses enormous,” New York Times, 13 September 1954, p. 13.
John H. Fenton, “Hurricane pelts Maine candidates,” New York Times, 1 September 1954,
“Eight dead in Maine,” p. 13.
John H. Fenton, “Voters of Maine go to polls today,” New York Times, 13 September
1954, p. 1.
John H. Fenton, “Cross is blamed by Maine G.O.P.,” New York Times, 15 September
1954, p. 22.
“Pennsylvania court upholds emergency power to suspend, reschedule election.”
Election Administration Reports, 26 October 1987, p. 3.
Joseph F. Sullivan, “Crews clearing Jersey highways battle in vain against driven snow,”
New York Times, 7 February 1978, p. 42.
Elections were postponed in 49 counties by the Texas secretary of
state in 1980 under the Governor’s emergency authority because of
As a result of the extended clean-up effort required in the weeks
after Hurricane Hugo, officials in Isle of Palms, South Carolina
sought to delay the November 7, 1989 municipal elections.61
Foreign Elections Sometimes Held Under Difficult Conditions
Research by CRS suggests that elections in other countries sometimes are held
under conditions that might severely suppress turnout in the United States. Some
examples of foreign elections held in difficult conditions are described below.
Colombia 1990. Colombians went to the polls in 1990, under a threat of
violence from drug traffickers. Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, who ran on a strong anti-drug
platform, was elected after a nine-month campaign in which three presidential
candidates had been killed, and after numerous bombings in public places.62
Peru 1991. In 1992, the New York Times reported that Shining Path guerilla
activities had resulted in formation of peasant militias to counter the Shining Path’s
brutality. The Times reported that although the terrorists’ activities had “prevented
valid elections from being held in 42% of Peru’s 498 electoral districts” in 1991,
those districts accounted for only 7% of the country’s total population.63
Cambodia 1993. In the weeks preceding the Cambodian election in 1993,
many observers anticipated widespread violence at the polls.64 The six-day voting
period, which began on May 23, was supervised by a 22,000-member U.N.
peacekeeping force — reportedly the biggest peacekeeping operation in U.N.
history.65 On the eve of the first day of voting, an opposition party headquarters had
been attacked with grenades, killing at least one man, prompting U.N. officials to
warn that polling places might become the targets of the Khmer Rouge.66 By the end
of the voting period, the New York Times reported that the Khmer Rouge, who had
opposed the election, had “surprised United Nations officials by delivering thousands
“Hurricane travels toward Texas coastline,” New York Times, 9 August 1980, p. 5.
“South Carolina coast spared from new dangers,” New York Times, 18 October 1989, p.
James Brooke, “Strong drug foe wins in Colombia by a wide margin,” New York Times,
28 May 1990, p. A1.
James Brook, “Roadblock on the Shining Path: angry peasants,” New York Times, 26 May
1992, p. A4.
Philip Shenon, “Cambodia factions use terror tactics in crucial election,” New York
Times, 10 May 1993, p. A1.
Philip Shenon, “Hope and violence as Cambodian election begins,” New York Times, 23
May 1993, p. A1.
of Cambodians from territory under the rebels’ control to vote in at least three of the
nine provinces in which they have a sizable presence.”67 Despite the threats of
violence, the Times reported estimates that more than 90% of Cambodia’s 4.7 million
eligible voters had voted.68
Bosnia 1996. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe
(OSCE) postponed municipal elections in Bosnia twice in 1996 and once in 1997.
The municipal elections set for September 14, 1996, were postponed “because of
widespread irregularities in registration,”69 but the general elections went on as
scheduled under the supervision of the OSCE.70 Municipal elections were again
postponed in October 1996, “because of ‘continuing political problems in
municipalities across Bosnia,’”71 and again in March 1997, “in order to better
organize teams of international monitors and to raise additional money to pay for the
election.”72 Bosnian municipal elections were held on September 13, 1997, under
OSCE supervision and under the protection of NATO peacekeeping forces.73
Taiwan, 1996. China conducted a series of missile tests and joint army and
naval exercises in March 1996, according to New York Times reporting, “to
discourage aspirations for independence on [Taiwan] and to intimidate its 21 million
people in the two weeks before its first presidential election.”74 Although there was
no reported discussion of delaying the election, Beijing’s military actions and
communiques were widely regarded to be an effort to influence Taiwanese voters.75
During this period of elevated tension between China and Taiwan, the United States
sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region.76
The New China News Agency announced that “from March 18 to 25, 1996, the
Chinese People’s Liberation Army will conduct joint ground, naval and air exercises
“Khmer Rouge puzzle: softer strategy,” New York Times, 28 May 1993, p. A3.
Mike O’Connor, “In one town, delaying Bosnia vote is bitter news,” New York Times, 29
August 1996, p. A3.
Chris Hedges, “Bosnia holds vote with few reports of real violence,” New York Times,
15 September 1996, p. A1.
Chris Hedges, “Bosnia municipal elections face new postponement as Serbs balk,” New
York Times, 23 October 1996, p. A1.
Philip Shenon, “Municipal elections again postponed in Bosnia,” New York Times, 7
March 1997, p. A4.
Chris Hedges, “Bosnians vote, but animosity is unrelenting,” New York Times, 14
September 1997, p. A1.
Edward A. Gargan, “With Taipei vote two weeks away, Beijing steps up its pressure,”
New York Times, 8 March 1996, p. A1.
Seth Faison, “China says Taiwan election shows that voters oppose separation from the
mainland,” New York Times, 24 March 1996, p. A16.
in and over the sea area” in the northwest Taiwan Strait.77 The New York Times
reported on March 17, 1996 that “since the first missile landed just north of the
Taiwanese port of Keelung, China has vilified ... [Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui],
accusing him of harboring desires for independence and urging Taiwan’s voters to
reject him in the voting booth.”78 That strategy was apparently not successful,
because Lee Teng-hui received 54% of the total votes cast in the election. The Times
reported that “Beijing appeared to achieve the opposite of its intended result. Many
Taiwan voters rallied to Mr. Lee, they said, precisely because China threatened so
Factors Governing Decisions to Postpone Elections
The domestic and international examples of elections that were either
postponed, or held under difficult conditions, suggest there may be circumstances
where a general election might be postponed in the United States. Congress, in
theory, could exclude Members who had not been elected on the first Monday after
the first Tuesday in November, through its Constitutional power to examine the
credentials of its Members provided by Article 1 §5, cl. 1. Although there are
examples of Members being seated who were elected in general elections held on
days other than the day set by statute, no cases were found where Congress has failed
to seat a delegation that was elected on a different day.80
Congress and the courts historically have allowed states some flexibility in
conducting federal elections, despite uniform election day requirements. The
following examples suggest that postponing an election for a catastrophic event
would not necessarily lead to controversy.
The Uniform Election Day in November. When a uniform election day
for Congress was established in 1872,81 several states did not adhere to the new law.
In 1878, a New York Times editorial listed West Virginia, North Carolina, California,
and Colorado as states seeking exemptions to uniform election day requirement.82
In 1875, Congress included a “grandfather” clause granting states a possible
exemption from the uniform election day requirement in an omnibus appropriations
Patrick E. Tyler, “China says maneuvers will last through Taiwan’s elections,” New York
Times, 16 March 1996, p. A5.
Edward A. Gargan, “In Taiwan, few admit to worries about China,” New York Times, 17
March 1996, p. A4.
“China says Taiwan election,” p. A16.
See U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, United States Senate
Election, Expulsion and Censure Cases from 1793 to 1990, Doc. No. 103-33, 103rd Cong.,
1st session, by Anne M. Butler and Wendy Wolf, and House of Representatives Exclusion,
Censure and Expulsion Cases from 1789 to 1973, Joint Committee on Congressional
Operations, Committee Print, 92rd Cong., 1st session.
2 U.S.C. §7.
Untitled Editorial, New York Times, 11 June 1878, p. 4.
act.83 This provision apparently was the basis for Maine’s September general
elections for Congress. The state adopted the November national election day in
1960.84 The laws establishing the same November election day for appointing
presidential electors had no similar exemptions for states with different election
Louisiana’s Open Primary. Louisiana adopted a unique “open primary”
system that became effective for the 1978 election. The open primary was held in
October of general election years. All candidates, regardless of their party affiliation,
appeared on the same ballot. If no candidate received a majority of the vote in a
race, a run-off election was held between the two candidates receiving the most votes
on the federal general election day in November. This Louisiana practice ended in
1997, by court, not congressional, action.
In 1997, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court held that Louisiana’s open primary
violated the law requiring congressional elections to be held on the national election
day.86 In dicta, however, Justice Souter’s opinion for the court appeared to recognize
a state might be permitted to deviate from the requirements in some circumstances.
A footnote provides that “this case thus does not present the question of whether a
State must always employ the conventional mechanics of an election. We hold today
only that if an election does take place, it may not be consummated prior to a federal
Early Voting. State and federal law has long provided for voting before the
national uniform federal election day for voters who expect to be absent on election
day, citizens residing outside the United States, and U.S. armed services personnel.
The requirements for obtaining absentee ballots have become very easy in many
states in recent decades.
See “An act making appropriations for sundry civil expenses of the Government for the
fiscal year ending June thirtieth, eighteen hundred and seventy-six, and for other purposes,”
18 Stat. 371. Section 6 provides, “that section twenty-five of the Revised Statutes
prescribing the time for holding elections for Representatives to Congress, is hereby
modified so as not to apply to any State that has not changed its day of election, and whose
constitution must be amended in order to effect a change in the day of the election of State
officers in said State.” 18 Stat. 400.
“Maine elects to go with rest of nation,” New York Times, 10 September 1957, p. 1.
5 Stat. 721 provides “that the electors of President and Vice President shall be appointed
in each State on the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November of the
year in which they are to be appointed: Provided, That each State may by law provide for
the filling of any vacancy or vacancies which may occur in its college of electors when such
college meets to give its electoral vote: And provided, also, when any State shall have held
an election for the purpose of choosing electors, and shall fail to make a choice on the day
aforesaid, then the electors may be appointed on a subsequent day in such manner as the
State shall by law provide.”
Foster v. Love, 522U.S. 67 (1997).
Ibid, note 4.
For example, voters in Oregon approved a ballot measure in 1998 directing
elections to be conducted by mail, replacing traditional polling-place elections.
Ballots are automatically sent to each registered voter two weeks prior to an election.
The ballots can be returned by mail or in person, but they must be received by 8:00
pm on election night.88 In Oregon, therefore, the November general election date is
the end of an election period, not a single day as envisioned in federal law. Oregon
is the only state that has essentially eliminated the traditional precinct-based polling
place, but most states have liberalized their laws so voters may vote early if they
choose to do so.
Early voting often incorporates a combination of liberal absentee voting
regulations, which allow voters to request absentee ballots without meeting specific
requirements such as absence from home, with special polling places (often open for
many days) that may include traditional polling places, such as schools, as well as
nontraditional locations, including shopping malls.
The Texas early voting program was challenged in 2000 as a violation of the
uniform election day statute (2 USC §7). The Voting Integrity Project, Inc. and
several Texas registered voters had failed to convince a U.S. District Court that
Texas’s practice permitting unrestricted early voting in federal elections was
preempted by general election day requirements of federal law. The U.S. Court of
Appeals for the Fifth Circuit concluded, “because the election of federal officials in
Texas is not decided until Texas voters go to the polls on federal election day, we
conclude that the Texas early voting scheme is not inconsistent with federal election
laws.”89 Certiorari was denied when the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme
A Federal Election May Be Postponed Because of the Voting Rights
Act. Although completing the election process before the November general
election day has not found favor in the courts, under certain circumstances, courts
have recognized that a federal general election may be postponed. In 1981, the state
of Georgia adopted a congressional redistricting plan that was not sanctioned by the
U.S. Attorney General pursuant to §5 of the Voting Rights Act.91 The state’s revised
redistricting plan was eventually approved, but the approval came so late in 1982 that
the Attorney General objected to the election schedule because it would not allow the
parties to field candidates who would have enough time “for voters ‘to make a
reasoned selection among candidates’ [thus the schedule] ‘would impact unfairly on
black voters of the Atlanta area.’”92
The scheduling problem was still unresolved when the matter came before the
U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on August 24, 1982 — ten weeks
Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, Voting in Oregon, [Pamphlet] 10 February 2000.
Voting Integrity Project v. Bomer. 199 F.3d 773, 774 (5th Cir. 2000).
Cert. denied, Voting Integrity Project v. Bomer. 199 F.3d 773, 774 (5th Cir. 2000), 530
U.S. 1230, (2000).
42 U.S.C. §1973c.
Busbee v. Smith, 549 F. Supp. 521 (1982).
before the general election scheduled for November 2, 1982. Georgia had argued
that 2 U.S.C. §7 required the state to adhere to the uniform national election day, so
a primary had been scheduled for the Atlanta congressional districts (numbers 4 and
5) for August 31, with the general election to follow on November 2
The District Court rejected Georgia’s argument, because (1) the provisions of
the Voting Rights Act would prevail because it was enacted later than the statute
setting a uniform election day; and (2) 2 USC §8 recognized that there might be a
failure to elect a Representative on the prescribed general election day because, there
might be “a vacancy, whether such vacancy is caused by a failure to elect at the time
prescribed by law, or the by the death, resignation, or incapacity of a person elected
[emphasis in §8 excerpt added by the District Court].”93 The District Court opined
that “although the 42nd Congress could not have anticipated a ‘failure to elect’
engendered by a section 5 injunction, interpreting that phrase as encompassing such
a failure does no violence to Congress’ intent.”94 The case, Busbee v. Smith, was
appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which affirmed the district court’s decision
without an opinion.95
In contrast to Justice Souter’s dicta in Foster v. Love, 522 U.S. 67 (1997), noted
above, recognizing the possibility that there might be circumstances where states
might deviate from the “conventional mechanics” of the electoral process, the district
court’s dicta 15 years earlier more specifically addressed the possibility of
postponing elections for disasters. Judge Edwards noted “by way of analogy,
Congress did not expressly anticipate that a natural disaster might necessitate a
postponement, yet no one would seriously contend that section 7 would prevent a
state from rescheduling its congressional elections under such circumstances.”96
The Civil War Amendments. Implementation by Congress of the 14th and
15 Amendments provides examples of its reluctance to entertain credential
challenges to state delegations because state laws or practices may violate federal
law. Section 2 of the 14th Amendment has an enforcement provision that, had it been
used, might have significantly changed civil rights history in America. Section 2
provides, in part:
When the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and
Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive
and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is
denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of
age, and citizens of the United Sates, or in any way abridged, except for
participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall
be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear
to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State
Ibid., p. 525.
Ibid., p. 526.
459 U.S. 1166 (1983).
Busbee v. Smith, p. 526.
Despite the disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South after
Reconstruction, no state ever had its representation in the House of Representatives
reduced by this provision.97 Congress eventually enacted the Voting Rights Act of
1965 to address the disenfranchisement of African Americans that occurred in the
region during the last quarter of the 19th century and continued until the 1960s.98
Concluding Observations About Election Postponement
The presumption that elections are held on schedule in the United States is a
strong one. The fact that federal elections were held in the United States during the
Civil War,99 and every other war, declared or undeclared, since that time is often
cited as a rationale for the principle that federal elections should not be postponed.
The postponements discussed above suggest, however, that there are events that may
cause election administrators to consider interrupting or postponing a general election
regardless of that presumption. These include peril to life and extensive damage to
infrastructure. The examples suggest that if a state or locality decided that a
catastrophe required the interruption or postponement of the general election for the
Presidency and Congress, Congress would tend to accept the delay, so long as the
rescheduled elections were held before the date in December when the electoral
college casts its ballots, and the beginning of the next Congress, respectively. If a
catastrophic event were to occur on election day, state and local officials in the
affected areas might do as the Suffolk County New York elections officials did on
September 11, 2001. They could “decide ... this [is] the right thing to do,”100 and
postpone the election.
Reliance on modern technology may make elections potentially more vulnerable
to disruption today than in the past. When Hurricane Dora struck Georgia in 1964,
the New York Times reported that “voters finished casting ballots in the Georgia
primary election by the light of hand flashlights.”101 Maine’s voters were able to cast
ballots in the 1954 general election even though there were widespread power
outages. Hand-counted paper ballots and lever machines require no electricity.
Today’s electronic voting systems may fail without a reliable electrical supply —
even though most have battery back-ups. Electricity is also used for counting ballots
and performing other election-administration tasks. For example, an estimated 80%
of votes in 2004 will be counted with the aid of computers. Thus, a major
An effort to not seat the entire Mississippi delegation, because of the disenfranchisement
of African American voters, failed at the beginning of the 89th Congress when the House
adopted H.Res. 1, providing for administering the oath to the Mississippi Representatives.
An election contest based on the same premise also did not succeed. See U.S. Congress,
House, Deschler’s Precedents, H. Doc. 94-661, 94th Cong., 2nd session, vol. 2, Chapt. 8 §5.6,
Congress implemented this section of the 14th Amendment in 1872. See 2 U.S.C. §6.
However, federal elections were held only in states that had not sought to secede from
Brand, “Primary vote postponed.”
Associated Press, “Hurricane lashes two Florida cities,” New York Times, 10 September
10, 1964, p. 1.
interruption of the electrical power in a state or region may require the postponement
of an election, depending on when the outage occurred, how long it lasted, and what
voting systems were in use. The relative size of the electorate underscores the
reliance on technology, as large numbers of voters could be affected by technology
failures, and voting by paper ballot may no longer be an option in densely population
areas. In 1952, about 62 million voters cast ballots in the presidential contest
compared with 105 million in 2000; the transition to faster, more efficient voting
methods was driven largely by the growth of the electorate, as well as longer ballots
(initiatives and referenda, for example), language requirements, and the desire for
speed in reporting results.
Security at the Polling Place
There are about 180,000 voting precincts in the United States.102 Just as
elections are administered by state and local governments, it is also generally the
responsibility of those governments to provide security at the polling places for those
The use of the military for domestic purposes has been a concern since the
colonial period. After the Civil War, laws were enacted limiting the role of U.S.
military forces in domestic activities. The best known is the Posse Comitatus Act of
1878.103 However, a law enacted a decade earlier, in 1865, specifically prohibits the
use of the military at the polls except in the event of an attack:
Whoever, being an officer of the Army or Navy, or other person in the civil,
military, or naval service of the United States, orders, brings, keeps, or has under
his authority or control any troops or armed men at any place where a general or
special election is held, unless such force be necessary to repel armed enemies
of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than
five years, or both; and be disqualified from holding any office of honor, profit,
or trust under the United States. This section shall not prevent any officer or
member of the armed forces of the United States from exercising the right of
suffrage in any election district to which he may belong, if otherwise qualified
according to the laws of the State in which he offers to vote.104
Data are from the Election Reform Information Project [http://www.electionline.org] and
Election Data Services [http://www.electiondataservices.com]. The number of precincts is
not identical to the number of polling places. In particular, in some cases, more than one
precinct may be accommodated by a single polling place.
For more information, see Jennifer Elsea, The Posse Comitatus Act and Related Matters:
A Sketch, CRS Report RS20590, 19 May 2003; and (name redacted),
The Posse Comitatus Act
& Related Matters: The Use of the Military to Execute Civilian Law, CRS Report 95-964,
1 June 2000.
18 USC §592. The original statute also permitted military personnel to “to keep peace
at the polls” (13 Stat. 37). Military and civilian government employees are also expressly
prohibited from interfering in elections by other sections of this title (18 USC §§593 —
Whether this statute applies to the National Guard, as well as federal troops, may
depend on whether Guard units are serving under the authority of state Governors or
State and local laws regarding police at polling places vary. For example, in
Pennsylvania, police are required to remain at least 100 feet from a polling place
unless summoned.106 By contrast, in New York City, at least one police officer is
assigned to each polling place.107 Public opinion regarding police presence also
varies, with some tension between those who believe that it enhances security and
therefore facilitates voting, and those who believe that it can intimidate voters and
To assist states in security planning in the context of the terrorist threat, the
National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Governors Association,
in collaboration with other organizations and consultation with the U.S. Department
of Homeland Security (DHS), have prepared a general guide for state electionsecurity planning.108 It recommends that states create a planning team consisting of
key policymakers with security, response, and election responsibilities. The team
should identify reactions to a range of scenarios, including the current situation,
raised threat levels, and incidents both before and on election day. Contingency
plans for those scenarios should address specific issues relating to communication
and coordination, authority and responsibility, and public information. The authors
stress that such planning is important not only with respect to possible terrorist
attack, but also in the event of natural disasters impacting the election.
The question of the level of risk of terrorist attack associated with the November
2 election has been the subject of some controversy.109 The reactions of state and
local officials have varied, with some intending to make as few visible changes as
possible and others planning to increase police presence or even move polling
Doyle, CRS Report 95-964, p. 41 — 43.
25 P.S. § 3047.
NY [Elections] LAW § 8-104(6).
National Association of Secretaries of State and others, Overview: Election Security
Planning for States, 24 September 2004, available at
See, for example, Spencer S. Hsu and Jo Becker, “Election Day Anti-Terrorism Plans
Draw Criticism,” Washington Post, 6 October 2004; David Johnston and Don Van Natta,
Jr., “Little Evidence of Qaeda Plot Timed to Vote,” New York Times, 23 October 2004.
Jason B. Grosky, “Town May Cut Most Polling Places,” The Eagle-Tribure, 22
September 2004; Kevin Johnson, “Election Warning Causes Anxiety,” USA Today, 7
October 2004, p. A12; Michael D. Shear, “Terror Threat Complicates Election Plans in
Region,” Washington Post, 15 October 2004, p. A1.
Impact of Early and Absentee Voting
An increasing number of states permit voters to cast ballots in person before
election day (early voting) or to mail in ballots (absentee voting) without providing
a specific, approved reason (this is sometimes called “no excuse” voting).111
Increasing numbers of voters have been casting ballots using these alternative
systems in recent elections, and that trend is expected to continue. Use of them can
mitigate concerns about security, in at least two ways. First, it can reduce the impact
on the election of any attack or other emergency that would affect polling places. For
example, Oregon votes entirely through mail-in balloting, so there are no polling
places to attack.112 Second, to the extent that it reduces the number of voters who go
to the polls, it can make providing security for them much easier. It is not clear
whether security concerns among voters will cause higher numbers than usual to use
these alternative methods in the current and future elections.
Options for Congress
Whether Congress considers taking any actions to enhance election security may
depend to significant degree on events associated with the November 2004 election
or elections in other industrialized nations. However, some observers argue that
even in the absence of any immediate problems, consideration of legislative options
would be prudent given both the likelihood that concerns about terrorist attacks will
continue and that natural disasters are always possible on or near election day, among
them weather events such as major storms, and earthquakes or volcanic eruptions.
Among the options Congress might consider are the following:
Take No Action. State and local jurisdictions, after all, have primary
responsibility for elections under the U.S. system of government. While HAVA
gives the federal government some specific responsibilities in election
administration, it gave the new agency it created, the EAC, no regulatory authority.
As described in this report, states already have considerable authority to provide
security for elections and to postpone them if necessary. HAVA also arguably
concentrates responsibilities for election administration at the state as opposed to the
local level of government. In the absence of specific problems requiring a federal
solution, it may be most appropriate to not attempt to modify those responsibilities.
It can also be argued that a decentralized approach enhances security in that it
can make targeting by terrorists more difficult and provide a broader range of
defenses than a centralized approach. In addition, Congress could respond to any
specific emergency after the fact, as New York state did after September 11, 2001,
According to the Election Reform Information Project, 35 states currently practice early
voting, and 25 permit “no excuse” absentee voting, with 23 providing both (electionline.org,
Election Preview 2004: What’s Changed, What Hasn’t, and Why, 19 October 2004,
Presumably, counting locations could still be targets, but they are generally not public
areas and would be much easier to secure.
and that might permit the most effectively tailored response. However, a
decentralized approach can itself create problems in at least two ways. First, the
resultant diversity of procedures can lead to variations in vulnerability that potential
attackers might identify and exploit. Second, it can make effective coordination
more difficult in the event of a national emergency related to an election.
Delegate Authority for Safeguarding Elections to the Executive
Branch. As discussed earlier, Congress may be able, within constitutional limits,
to delegate authority to the executive branch to postpone an election in response to
an emergency. Further, Congress could direct the executive branch to assist states
in providing security for elections through the EAC, DHS, or even the military.
However, since security of the polling places has traditionally been controlled by
state and local authorities, the degree to which the Constitution would allow
Congress to direct or supplant these functions may be at issue. To the extent such
actions are constitutionally permissible, they could create the capability of quick,
decisive response in the case of a threat or attack. However, such an approach would
likely also raise concerns about the risk of politicization of such actions and the
concentration of executive power over a central component of the machinery of
Treat Security as an Aspect of Continuity of Government. Some
observers have proposed that elections are essentially an element of critical
government infrastructure and as such should be considered as part of the developing
framework to ensure continuity of government (COG) and continuity of operations
(COOP) in the event of a crisis or emergency.113 However, so far, election
administration has been at best a peripheral element of legislative discussion about
such a framework.
Provide Mechanisms for Improved Coordination among States on
Election Security. The guidelines issued by the National Association of
Secretaries of State and other organizations urge coordination within states and
between individual states and the federal government. One option for congressional
action would be to provide either the EAC or DHS with specific capability and
responsibility to facilitate coordination among states on election security, without
providing authority to the agency for such security. In the case of the EAC, such
capability would presumably be in keeping with the Commission’s current
responsibilities as a clearinghouse for information about election administration.
Encourage Early Voting and Absentee Voting. If all ballots in the
United States were cast by mail, there would of course be no need for polling place
security. If the time over which votes are cast were sufficiently spread out, the
potential for impact of a specific event on an election would be lower. Since both
these forms of voting are increasing in the United States, Congress might consider
For information about COG and COOP , see (name redacted), Continuity of Operations
(COOP) in the Executive Branch: Background and Issues for Congress, CRS Report
RL31857, 31 March 2004; and (name redacted), Continuity of Government: Current
Federal Arrangements and the Future, CRS Report RS21089, 3 June 2004.
encouraging that increase to facilitate election security. However, these methods of
voting are not without problems. Some argue that early voting can significantly
change the nature of elections by effectively spreading election day over several
weeks. Such changes, some say, may not be beneficial in sum. Absentee balloting
has also been criticized as being more vulnerable to fraud and abuse than voting in
person. Nevertheless, such concerns might be addressed through measures targeted
to meet them.
None of the options discussed above appears to be without potential problems
and concerns. The 109th Congress may chose to examine these issues more closely
to determine what, if any, legislative action should be taken.
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