Mar. 20, 2006 – What was good enough for mostly well-to-do, pro-Western Iraqi expatriates living in the United States is apparently too good for the mostly black and poor New Orleanians displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
On Thursday, the US Justice Department authorized state and local plans for carrying out the New Orleans primaries on April 22. In votes postponed from February 4, the city will vote on mayoral, city council and other local primary races. Though the plans include setting up polling stations throughout Louisiana, remote balloting will not be available in other states with high concentrations of hurricane survivors.
In effect, displaced New Orleanians will not enjoy the same level of polling access that the federal government provided last year to Iraqi expatriates, who cast ballots for the Iraqi legislative elections in five cities across the United States.
By contrast, even Southern cities like Atlanta and Houston, which host high numbers of Katrina refugees, will not host polling stations for storm-affected New Orleanians outside of Louisiana.
Civil rights groups had been urging the Justice Department to overrule the plans, saying they will disenfranchise thousands of voters.
"The current elections plan is a formula for problems and disaster," National Urban League President Marc Morial told the Associated Press.
Under the voting plan, displaced New Orleanians scattered in other states would still be able to send in absentee ballots. But opponents of the plan say absentee ballots are unfairly cumbersome. Would-be voters must request a ballot ahead of time, fill it out correctly, sign it in front of a notary or witnesses, and send it back before April 21. Voting-rights advocates say they fear the complexity of the process will lead to the disqualification of many absentee ballots.
They also worry that candidates will not have an opportunity to present their platforms to constituents without reliable lists of addresses for registered voters. The Urban League is urging the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to make its comprehensive lists of hurricane survivors addresses available to registered candidates.
In a statement last Friday, the NAACP urged Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to put off next monthâ€™s election by executive order ''until clear and measurable procedures are put in place to ensure all New Orleans voters, regardless of demographical location, will be able to fully and freely exercise their constitutional right to vote."
NAACP President Bruce S. Gordon wrote to the governor: "Historically, the extension of voting rights to black citizens in Louisiana has been strongly resisted, whether through literacy tests, poll taxes or other formal and informal practices combined to keep black voting rates in the state low. The impact of Hurricane Katrina now threatens Louisiana's African-American citizens' voting right in equally devastating ways."
Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Louisiana is one of a handful of Southern states that must have its electoral plans cleared by the US Attorney General. According to the Washington Post, in approving the plan, Assistant US Attorney General William Moschella said the state "may well have done more under the circumstances," but that the steps taken were enough to make the election legal.