New Orleans; Apr. 18, 2006 – Mary Richardson stood in the shade outside City Hall, waiting to get back on the large tour bus after casting her ballot in the cityâ€™s municipal elections. She said she has voted in every New Orleans poll since she was eighteen, including the 1991 governorâ€™s race when Edwin Edwards ran against David Duke, former head of the Ku Klux Klan.
"I think this election is very important, ten times more important," she said, echoing the sentiments of many who made a 400-mile trip from San Antonio, Texas.
ACORN, an advocacy group for low- and middle-income families, bussed Mary and fifty other evacuees here to join hundreds of other residents displaced by the Gulf Coast hurricanes in a massive effort to bring people in from cities in neighboring states to vote. Saturday, the last day of early voting, closed the second weekend that ACORN has been transporting its members who have been displaced out of state to vote. Leading a parallel effort, the NAACP says it bussed in over 300 voters from Houston on Saturday alone.
Voters are choosing a Mayor and other city officials.
Rebecca Indianer, an ACORN organizer working with people displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in San Antonio, said that she knew of more than 100 New Orleanians in the city wanted to come home to vote. However, due to the hardships so many evacuees still experience on a daily basis, only half that number boarded the bus.
Many organizers and voters agreed that the difficulty displaced voters have had getting to the polls undermines the legitimacy of the election.
"Housing is still very unstable," she said. "Food Stamps are being cut off, Medicaid has been cut off, FEMA and the cityâ€¦ started dropping people after six months of providing housing. Itâ€™s monstrous."
Leon Johnson, an elderly man with a lined face and weary blue eyes, also made the trip from San Antonio. "If ACORN hadnâ€™t have given us transportation we wouldnâ€™t have been back," Johnson notes. "I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s right. I want to come back and live here. Maybe we can get something started through this vote."
Johnson said that other evacuees were not so fortunate. "A lot of them couldnâ€™t make it back," he told TNS, "They didnâ€™t have someone to watch their children, or they had old folks to take care of."
Many organizers and voters agreed that the difficulty displaced voters have had getting to the polls undermines the legitimacy of the election, a charge that has been leveled repeatedly by black leaders since plans for the April 22 election were finalized by the Louisiana Secretary of State in March.
On April 1, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and other local and national black figures led thousands of marchers across the Mississippi River Bridge from New Orleans to the suburb of Gretna. There they called for a halt to the election and for the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law passed in the heat of the civil-rights struggles to protect black voters from disenfranchisement.
Displaced voters are concerned about not having adequate election-related information.
More formal complaints have also been made. In a letter dated March 8, State Senator Cleo Fields of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, asked the US Department of Justice not to approve plans for the municipal election. In the letter, Fields predicted that factors such as changes in locations of polling places, lack of time for voters to request absentee ballots, and an "arguably deliberate lack of voter information" would lead to a "tremendous dilution of minority voting strength."
Among other problems, Fieldsâ€™s letter protested the inability of candidates to contact voters due to FEMAâ€™s refusal to share its contact information for displaced New Orleanians. FEMA has cited privacy concerns, but neither the agency nor the State of Louisiana â€“ both of which have contact information for most displaced voters â€“ has made arrangements to forward candidate information to temporary addresses listed for evacuees.
Displaced voters like Johnson are concerned about not having adequate election-related information. "I donâ€™t know nothing about none of my candidates", he told TNS, "If they would have sent informationâ€¦ that would have gave us something to go on."
The Louisiana Secretary of Stateâ€™s office has insisted that the myriad problems compounding the upcoming election do not warrant a postponement. Jennifer Marusak, spokesperson for the Secretary of State, said her office has "done everything possible" to get information to displaced voters. She said the officeâ€™s voter-outreach efforts include sending out 737,000 informational mailings about election logistics; placing Internet, radio and print media ads in eight states, and conducting a "town hall tour" in which officials visited five cities in three states.
Marusak also points to the satellite voting centers her office has set up inside Louisianaâ€™s ten most populous parishes, the stateâ€™s equivalent of counties. She said that no part of the state is more than an hourâ€™s drive from a voting center, and that registered voters in other states can vote by mail.
State Representative Charmaine Marchand, who represents New Orleansâ€™s Lower Ninth Ward, argued that the Secretary of Stateâ€™s office is relying too much on the Internet to provide information about polling sites, leaving out those on the other side of the digital divide. "If you don't have a computer, and you don't know any better, you will not be sure exactly where to vote," she told TNS.
Marchand also pointed out that the satellite voting centers will not be open on election day, further disenfranchising the more than 300,000 who are still displaced. "So on election day, if you're not in New Orleans, you're not going to be able to get your vote cast."
At stake are dozens of municipal seats, from the Mayorâ€™s office to property-tax assessors.
Before the storms, New Orleans had the highest urban concentration of black residents in the nation â€“ 68 percent according to the last census. Blacks have held the mayorâ€™s office for decades and currently hold four of the seven City Council seats. But the black majorityâ€™s presence in New Orleans politics could change with this election. "There is a great possibility that all the African-American elected offices could go to white overnight, just with one vote," said Beth Butler, an organizer with ACORN in New Orleans.
Fears of an intentional whitening of the city grew last fall when some white political leaders lauded the removal of large numbers of poor blacks from New Orleans. Chief among them was Richard Baker, a Republican congressman from northern Louisiana, who told the Wall Street Journal in September: "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did."
The evacuation of New Orleans has disproportionately affected blacks. According to a Brown University study released in January, 75 percent of those living in storm-damaged areas of New Orleans were black. Sociologist and author of the report John Logan estimated that as much as 80 percent of the cityâ€™s black population might not return.
Many wonder whether the circumstances surrounding the April 22 election amount to a conspiracy to weaken black political power or if theyâ€™re merely the messy result of trying to hold an election in the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in the nationâ€™s history.
Chuck Mills of the anti-racist organization the Peopleâ€™s Institute for Survival and Beyond, said the answer is in the impact. Sweating in the spring heat on the long walk across the bridge over the Mississippi two weeks ago, he commented, "I can only speculate, because I donâ€™t know anybody in the Louisiana power structure. But there certainly is a racial dimension, whether they intend for it to be or not, and itâ€™s just as bad as if it was intentional."