A Disaster Waiting to Happen

We have written previously about the issues associated with voting and civic engagement in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Ensuring that the recently displaced are able to vote and stay engaged will be an enomous challenge. However, as Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute recently wrote, things could be far worse. Ornstein presents the following scenario:

Imagine that what happened in Louisiana and Mississippi had happened more widely–say, a series of terrorist attacks causing mass havoc in 10 states, not two or three, with all or most of their lawmakers killed in one of the attacks on the Capitol. What would happen under this law? Louisiana and Mississippi would have had to have chosen the candidates for all their seats days ago–even as rescue operations continued, with all officials mobilized every minute of every day to provide basic services, and with the states coping with hundreds of thousands of evacuees.

Election officials would have then had basically until the end of this month to get all the polling places ready to go, print ballots or prepare their electronic machines (all assuming there is electricity to run them) and the candidates would have to have begun to run their campaigns. Oh, one other “technicality”: voters would have to be home to cast their ballots. Or found, very quickly, to cast absentee ballots (which would have to be printed in the days after the candidates were selected. Maybe at the local Kinko’s–oops, it’s under water). And voter registration records, in some cases also under water, would have to be uncovered to make sure that the voters were voting in the right districts–including voters without any ID.

This is the core of Congress’ response to the terrorist threat to governing institutions, and it is farcical.

Ornstein’s concern is based in part on the fact that, for the past 3 years, the Congress–especially the House–has been unwilling to consider what would happen in the case of its own demise. Ornstein directed the Continuity of Government Commission, which examined the question of what would happen if a majority of members of the House of Representatives were to be killed or incapacitated. As Ornstein explained after 9-11, if a majority of members of Congress were not killed but were incapacitated, say be a nerve gas or a dirty bomb attack, the Congress literally could not meet because there would be no quorum of members. If most members were killed, the country might be left under the goverance of a very small minority of members. The Commission recommended creating a constitutional amendment to address the problem, but Congress has yet to act. And if 9-11 and Katrina cannot force them to act, what will?