As Norman Ornstein points out in his July 16 op-ed, "We Need a Backup for Election Day," in 1864 the United States successfully held a national election in the middle of a civil war. The election was imperfect: Many citizens could not vote, even if they opposed secession, because the state in which they resided was in rebellion against the United States. Nevertheless, the election was widely recognized by citizens as legitimate.

The strength of our nation depends upon our demonstrating to ourselves and the world that no matter what our enemies do, they cannot disrupt the fundamental mechanics of our democracy. We are an intelligent and free people with strong institutions; we should be able to conduct a free and fair election on schedule even if attacked by our enemies, as we were able to do during the worst civil conflict in our nation's history.

To do otherwise would be to defeat ourselves and give an unearned victory to our enemy.


La Jolla, Calif.


It is misleading for Norman Ornstein to write that we "got through" the 1864 election "without any postponement." In 1864, Abraham Lincoln consciously chose the Constitution over politics. He believed that if the republic were worth fighting for, its election cycles should not be disrupted. The constitutional issue Mr. Lincoln faced was this: If the people at large are sovereign, elections stand above politics -- even during civil war.

Rather than devise "backup" plans, Mr. Lincoln and his Union allies did what they could to win what had become a referendum on the war. (Some historians contend that the Lincoln administration tipped the electoral balance by furloughing soldiers on whose votes the Republican Party could depend.) Let us learn from this example and not let the war on terrorism become a pretext for politicians to alter the fundamental law. Halting or postponing elections would undermine their constitutional legitimacy.