HOUSTON—Thousands of New Orleans residents are refusing to watch upcoming city elections from the sidelines, and they are working with supporters to ensure their right to participate.
Patricia O’Neil, evacuated to Houston from her home in the city’s Ninth Ward, is frustrated by the number of obstacles she faces in order to cast her vote: “I’m offended that we have to take additional steps to vote,” she said. “It should be exactly the way it was pre-Katrina. It should not be any different. I’m not registered in Houston, and I’m not going to, because I’m voting in New Orleans. And I’m not going to allow anyone to take my vote away.”
Thousands of voters in Houston and areas within a day’s drive of Louisiana plan to take buses to cities like Baton Rouge to participate in early voting for the April 22 open primary election instead of trusting their votes to be tallied by mail. They began leaving April 10 with full buses departing in the early morning hours from Houston. Most of the buses have been organized by local nonprofit organizations, which say charging a fee for transportation would be the modern equivalent to a poll tax.
The elections are being held at a time when New Orleans city leaders, led by real estate mogul Joe Canizaro, are talking about drastically shrinking the city’s size and eliminating once-predominantly African-American neighborhoods like New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward, which were heavily damaged by the storm.
It’s estimated that 80 percent of New Orleans’s black majority population still has not returned and will be the most heavily impacted by the out-of-state voting requirements. The elections went forward after a federal district court rejected a lawsuit by the NAACP and other groups to delay the vote, establish polling centers out of state and force the Federal Emergency Management Agency to turn over the addresses of evacuees to the campaigns.
The April 22 election is an open primary featuring 24 mayoral candidates from both parties. If no candidate receives over 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held May 20.
Of the leading candidates – beleaguered incumbent Ray Nagin, Louisiana Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu, Audabon Institute CEO Ron Forman, Former City Councilwoman Peggy Wilson and businessman Rob Couhig – Nagin is the only black. A victory by one of the others would make them New Orleans’ first white mayor since the 1970s.
Displaced residents who want to register to vote must request a registration form, then that form must be mailed or hand-delivered. Officials recommended the forms be sent to Baton Rouge since the New Orleans mail system is running weeks behind.
Once registered – or if one is already registered – the next step is to request an absentee ballot through the same process. According to New Orleans Civil District Clerk, fewer than 10,000 registered voters have requested absentee ballots. Once an absentee ballot is sent and completed, a voter must have it notarized before it can be sent back and recorded. Until recently, first-time voters were told they would have to return to the city to cast their vote in the April 22 primary.
Voting in the election will also take place on election day in New Orleans, and at satellite voting precincts in Louisiana.
Even though candidates have met with voters in states all around the country, there will be no satellite voting sites outside Louisiana, even in areas with large concentrations of evacuees. Critics who have called for a boycott of the election, like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, note this contrasts with the U.S. State Department’s huge effort to establish satellite voting for Iraqi exiles living in the United States.
Jackson organized a march on New Orleans on April 1 that attracted thousands who opposed the election timing and process. He said the march was the most critical demonstration since the civil rights era. “Fast is not more important than fair. [During the Civil Rights Movement] we marched for fair elections, not fast elections.”