Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
What do we do if a national election is disrupted? Hurricane Michael came and went in the Florida Panhandle, and its devastation has almost entirely escaped national attention. But imagine the impact it might have had on the election if it arrived just a few weeks later — the damage done, the evacuations, the turmoil in many lives. Such an event could affect turnout in ways that could shape both statewide and local contests in Florida and other states in the hurricane’s path.
But that impact — and the possibility of more dangerous storms in the coming month — raises a much broader problem: We have no Plan B to take the impact into account if a national election is disrupted. There are no do-overs and no mechanism in place to ameliorate the effect.
This issue is one I raised in the aftermath of 9/11, when it became clear to me and others that we had no meaningful plans to ensure continuity of government in the event of a terrorist attack — nothing workable for Congress, which could be stymied for months if there is no constitutional quorum of a majority of the members in either house to meet; an outdated and anachronistic plan for presidential succession; nothing for the Supreme Court, which simply has a legislative requirement of six of the nine justices to operate. The same gap exists for our elections. Remember, New York City was scheduled to vote in primaries on Sept. 11, 2001. But those local elections could be, and were, simply postponed until the city got back on its feet. Not true for a federal contest.
With the clear evidence that Russia acted to influence the 2016 presidential election, and has taken at least some steps — as has China, potentially — to intervene now and in the future, the issue of election security is major. What if, for example, China or Russia knocks out the electrical grid in one region of the country on a presidential Election Day? A hundred or more electoral votes would be disrupted, leaving the election outcome unsettled (along with many House, Senate and other elections). And of course, the same disruption could occur with a hurricane; given that we are seeing more hurricanes and more potent storms as seas have warmed, this is not a remote possibility.
We have no provision for a later election just in one region, and if we did, it would not be fair, because voters would know the results in the rest of the country. We have no provision to hold another election at a later date. Yet under such circumstances, it’s likely that no presidential candidate would get the necessary 270 electoral votes to be declared the winner. That, under the Constitution, would send the election to the House of Representatives — where, in turn, a significant share of members would not be seated for the new Congress, because their elections would not be held or valid. In the House, the top three presidential candidates with electoral votes would be considered, with each state casting one vote and 26 votes required to elect a president. Any election done in this fashion would have a president chosen with an enormous taint of illegitimacy. And the House, with significantly less than 50 states voting, might not even be able to select a winner.
These concerns might seem far-fetched — maybe grounds for a movie or a network television series starring Kiefer Sutherland. But, in fact, they are real. It is not difficult to imagine a devastating storm, a terrorist attack or a cyberattack on Election Day. Spending the resources necessary to protect against the latter is an obvious thing to do, although apparently not obvious enough to Republicans in Congress to pass the election security bill they have blocked.
There is no easy answer to the larger question of what we do if there is a major disruption of the election itself. What is urgently needed is to put this issue on the agenda and work through the possible ways to deal with it. And we need to do this — and act — before an event happens.