WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. officials have discussed the idea of postponing Election Day in the event of a terrorist attack on or about that day, a Homeland Security Department spokesman said Sunday.
The department has referred questions about the matter to the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel, said spokesman Brian Roehrkasse, confirming a report in this week's editions of Newsweek magazine.
Newsweek said the discussions about whether the November 2 election could be postponed started with a recent letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge from DeForest Soaries Jr., chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
The commission was set up after the disputed 2000 presidential vote to help states deal with logistical problems in their elections.
Soaries, who was appointed by President Bush, is a former New Jersey secretary of state and senior pastor of the 7,000-member First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset.
Newsweek reported that Soaries expressed concern that no federal agency had the authority to postpone an election and asked Ridge to ask Congress to give his commission such power.
Ridge warned Thursday that al Qaeda terrorists were planning a large-scale attack on the United States "in an effort to disrupt the democratic process." (Full story)
Ridge said he had no specific or credible information about threats to the political conventions. The four-day Democratic convention kicks off July 26 in Boston, Massachusetts, and the Republican National Convention begins August 30 in New York City.
Ridge also said the nation's color-coded terrorist threat level would remain at yellow, or elevated.
Democratic Rep. Jane Harman of California, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Sunday that she believes planning for the possibility of postponing Election Day is "excessive, based on what we know."
"Six days ago, the leadership of the House and Senate intelligence committees and leadership of the House and Senate were briefed on these so-called new threats," Harman said on CNN's "Late Edition."
"They are more chatter about old threats, which were the subject of a press conference by Attorney General [John] Ashcroft and [FBI] Director [Robert] Mueller six weeks ago.
"[Ridge] sounded more like an interior decorator talking about what more we can do under the shade of yellow," she said.
The news that such discussions have taken place raised other eyebrows on Capitol Hill as well.
"I don't think there's an argument that can be made, for the first time in our history, to delay an election," said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a member of the Intelligence Committee.
"We hold elections in the middle of war, in the middle of earthquakes, in the middle of whatever it takes. The election is a statutory election. It should go ahead, on schedule, and we should not change it."
But the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Christopher Cox of California, said on "Late Edition" that he sees Ridge's request as part of a prudent effort to plan for "doomsday scenarios."
"We don't have any intelligence to suggest that it is going to happen, but we're preparing for all of these contingencies now," Cox said.
Noting that New York election officials were able to postpone their September 11, 2001, primary election after terrorists slammed hijacked planes into the World Trade Center, Cox said "there isn't any body that has that authority to do that for federal elections."
"So what Secretary Ridge has asked the Justice Department to do is, 'Give me a legal memo, tell me what will be necessary. Do we need to go to Congress and get legislation?' "
What has Homeland Security officials worried is that terrorists could attempt to disrupt the election in the same way that train bombings in Madrid created unrest three days before the Spanish general election, Roehrkasse said.
Although there is no evidence that the bombings influenced the March 11 vote, socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero unseated Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, whose center-right government supported the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
The country's new government then pulled Spanish troops from Iraq.