Feb. 21, 2006 – Despite emergency orders and new legislation, elections turmoil in New Orleans is far from over. Two weeks ago, grassroots organizations and community leaders filed a federal lawsuit seeking broad ballot access for people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Elections for mayor, city council and other positions are currently scheduled for April 22 and May 20.
According to the lawsuit, state elections plans would essentially disenfranchise displaced city residents, the majority of them black. The suit was filed on February 9 by the Association for Community Reform Now (ACORN), the Advancement Project and two leaders of New Orleansâ€™s Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Council,
Official estimates put the cityâ€™s current population at 156,000, about a third of pre-Katrina numbers. Before last summerâ€™s storms, the city was nearly 70 percent black. There are no reliable statistics concerning New Orleansâ€™s ethnic makeup since the New Orleanians scattered before and after Katrina struck.
Last November, state lawmakers passed Act 40, granting special powers to the Louisiana secretary of state to formulate an emergency election plan. Before the hurricane, citywide elections had been scheduled for February 4 and March 4. In January, Governor Kathleen Blanco issued an emergency order postponing them until spring.
According to the plaintiffs, Act 40 is flawed. In a statement announcing the suit, the Advancement Project, a Washington, DC-based civil rights advocacy group, said the legislation does not give the secretary of state enough discretion to make sure displaced residents have access to the ballot.
"Democracy is the latest disaster in the state," Advancement Project Co-director Penda Hair said. "Louisiana law, including Act 40, when applied to the post-Katrina landscape, will disenfranchise or severely burden the franchise for tens of thousands of displaced Orleans Parish voters, a disproportionate number of whom are African-American, which is in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965."
The plaintiffs are calling on the state to hold the elections as scheduled but, in order to better serve residents who have not been able to return, it seeks polling places in other states and asks that the state mail unsolicited absentee ballots to all known out-of-state addresses. State offices and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are reportedly maintaining a list of known evacuee addresses.