State election officials have issued a bulletin to the 50 states and the District to step up security preparations and contingency planning for disruptions to safeguard national balloting in case of an al Qaeda attack.
U.S. counterterrorism officials are mobilizing to deter such a plot, although they say there is no intelligence about timing or targets. Analysts are alarmed about the possibility of direct attacks at election sites within the United States or a domestic reprise of last spring's Madrid train bombings before national elections in Spain.
"The information that the federal government has tells us the prudent thing is to make sure we do everything we can to reduce anxiety, and to make sure the process of democracy goes on uninterrupted," said George W. Foresman, homeland security adviser to Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), chairman of the National Governors Association.
In response, the NGA and associations for state election directors, emergency managers and secretaries of state plan to announce this afternoon that they have urged their members and local authorities to coordinate the analysis of threat information and to plan for securing polling places, ballot-counting centers and alternate voting sites.
The point is to ensure that "free and fair" elections are also safe and fair, officials said. Planning guidelines urge governors to work closely with homeland security and law enforcement agencies and to coordinate their actions with independent election officials to avoid any interference with the integrity of the voting process.
The guidance comes a little more than five weeks before Election Day on Nov. 2, as states such as Iowa and Maine have begun early voting and others have launched absentee balloting. Many states have moved ahead independently with such planning, although most have not coordinated with one another.
"We realized there was a real need for coordination among groups within the states," said New Mexico Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron, president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. "While election and emergency management officials have already established their own security plans, they may not have communicated those plans to each other or to other relevant state officials."
The chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission this summer faulted the federal government and the Department of Homeland Security for not moving faster. DeForest B. Soaries Jr., chairman of the commission, which Congress created to help localities improve their voting systems, said nothing had been done by July to help localities secure 193,000 polling places.
But state leaders said the nation's decentralized federal system generally leaves the conduct of elections up to local officials operating under state law. At the same time, civil rights leaders have cautioned that security measures should not discourage or intimidate citizens from voting, and state laws and customs historically have insulated election officials from gubernatorial executive powers, which include authority over emergency preparedness and public safety.
"The federal election is not a national election. It's a 50-state election for federal offices," Foresman said. "There's been some thought given to some of the issues, but not in the context of the post-September 11 environment."
Materials circulated to election managers recommend that states plan for possible scenarios including an elevated national terror threat level before Election Day, the possibility of attacks leading up to Nov. 2 requiring higher security and strikes that disrupt balloting.
A threat matrix also advises authorities to consider planning how they will secure individual polling places, defend state election board Web sites, protect voting data and results, maintain evidence such as ballots, survive power or phone outages and guard electoral college members who will vote in state capitols Dec. 13.