U.S. officials are expressing concern that terrorists will try to disrupt the presidential election in November by launching an attack around Election Day, but they are only now planning to raise the subject with local election officials.
Meanwhile, the chairman of a federal voting commission said the government has been negligent in not moving faster.
"Nothing has been done," said DeForest B. Soaries, chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, which Congress created to help localities improve their voting systems. "It's embarrassing that the federal government hasn't taken this more seriously. . . . I won't be silent."
Election officials around the country say they are eager for advice on how to address security worries but say they are baffled at the idea of securing the nation's 193,000 polling places.
Election administrators also express worry that posting police officers near or in polling sites might discourage some people, especially immigrants and members of minority groups, from voting.
The concern about election security stems from the terrorist bombing of trains on March 11 in Madrid in which 190 people and a fetus were killed. The attack helped bring down the government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, and shortly thereafter U.S. intelligence warned that terrorists have been emboldened by it to want to derail American elections, possibly by launching attacks at the political conventions or around Election Day.
U.S. officials point out that if attacks follow the model in Spain, they would come in the days before the voting and be against civilian targets, rather than on Election Day against polling places.
"One of our top priorities is to ensure that our election process, which is one of our most important freedoms, won't become a target for terrorists," said Brian Roehrkasse, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. "While we don't have any specific intelligence that al Qaeda will attack our Election Day activities, we'll continue to assess this potential threat, and put in place targeted security measures as necessary."
Homeland Security officials who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject said it would be almost impossible to try to secure all polling places with guards. The officials said they plan to communicate with election administrators in the coming months, possibly through security bulletins issued through local governments, to help them think about election security.
"There hasn't been a lot of discussion about the security questions yet" either with U.S. officials or without them, said Denise Lamb, New Mexico's chief election officer and president of the National Association of State Election Directors.
"This is going to be a huge issue for us, and we've got to get it on our radar screen," said R. Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, a nonpartisan group that trains and certifies election administrators.
Soaries, a Baptist minister who was New Jersey's secretary of state from 1999 to 2002, said he wrote two letters to Homeland Security, in April and last month, but received no reply. The letters urged the agency to start discussing security concerns with local officials, and also said the government should consider changing the date of the November election in the event of a terrorist strike, he said.
The country needs a mechanism to change the date of federal elections in a given state not only after a terrorist attack, but also in the event of, say, a California earthquake or a Florida hurricane, Soaries said. He pointed out that New York City scheduled a mayoral primary election on Sept. 11, 2001, that had to be delayed, even though officials had no explicit authority to do that. The voting was held on Sept. 25.
Changing the date of a federal election would require congressional action, at the least, because laws established that federal elections are to be held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November on even-numbered years.
Roehrkasse said the Homeland Security Department is still reviewing Soaries's letter of last month, adding that it has no record of receiving an earlier note from him.
Lewis said many election officials will be wary of having armed guards near polling places, for fear of intimidating voters.
"We have to be exceedingly careful that in protecting voters' safety, we don't deny democracy," he said. "We want voters to be comfortable in polling places."