The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Despite Barriers, Displaced New Orleanians Return Home to Vote

by Catherine Komp

This weekend's general election for mayor and other seats in the Crescent City revives racially complicated concerns about displaced residents' ability to access polls.

May 19, 2006 – Hundreds of displaced New Orleanians are headed back home again on Saturday to vote for a mayor and other city leaders who will have a heavy hand in the city’s rebuilding process, just one month after many of them made the same trip for primary elections.

While state officials attest that the April 22 primary went smoothly, advocates for displaced residents continue their fight to expose barriers that are preventing many people from voting – barriers that some groups believe violate the Voting Rights Act.

"The demographics of the city have changed drastically, and the outcome of this election may inform in many ways – whether they be positive or negative – the future" of New Orleans, said Corlita Mahr, a community organizer with the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, a grassroots group that aids hurricane survivors and contributes to rebuilding efforts.

Advocates for hurricane survivors have been working for months using legal avenues and grassroots mobilizing to maximize voter turnout, especially for the city’s majority black population, which has been historically disenfranchised in the electoral process through misinformation and intimidation campaigns.

"Regardless of how anyone views hurricanes Katrina and Rita and their aftermath," said Damon Hewitt, legal counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, "I think everyone would have to agree that they posed a significant barrier to African-Americans being able to cast a ballot in this election, if for no other reason than most of the people who are still displaced are African-American; most of the neighborhoods that were devastated were African-American."

Advocates for hurricane survivors have been working for months using legal avenues and grassroots mobilizing to maximize voter turnout.

To re-enfranchise voters, groups have set up "empowerment centers" in cities where large numbers of displaced residents are staying. The centers provide information on candidates, absentee ballots and voters’ rights.

Activists won some protections during Wallace v. Blanco, the lawsuit voting-rights groups filed against the state. Part of the agreement includes the ability to place 150 monitors inside polling stations across the state, for both the April primary and Saturday’s elections. And organizations are again scheduling bus trips from Atlanta, Mobile, Dallas, Houston and other cities so that displaced residents can vote in person.

While about half of registered white voters cast ballots in April, less than a third of registered black residents voted. In 2002, about the same percentage of white voted compared to about 45 percent of blacks. Hewlett believes this is a reflection of how poorly the election was conducted.

"With the stakes in this election, we expected a much, much higher turnout," Hewitt told reporters. "And I think the reason why we didn’t have greater turnout is simply because people are displaced, and elections officials did not make it easier for them or practical for them even to cast a ballot."

Organizations are again scheduling bus trips from Atlanta, Mobile, Dallas, Houston and other cities so that displaced residents can vote in person.

Hewitt said residents returning to the city encountered poorly labeled or relocated polling places and missing names on voter rolls. In the city’s approximately 28 mega-polling centers, where between five and fifty precincts are located, Hewitt said some voters who entered the building before 8:00 p.m. were unable to vote because they could not find the correct line.

"As a result there were people who were disenfranchised," said Hewitt, adding that they requested the clerk of court address the problem before Saturday’s election and permit anyone who is in the building before 8:00 p.m. the right to cast a ballot.

Organizer Mahr also encountered problems. "Being a voter there myself, the location [of the polling center] was vague, and we just kind of followed people and hoped we’d bump into the building – and we did, but we had our own car and we had looked up online where our zip code was going to be voting," Mahr told The NewStandard. For displaced voters without their own transportation or Internet access, Mahr said, it was likely more difficult to find where they needed to go.

Jennifer Marusak, the secretary of state’s spokesperson, disputed those allegations. She said that the secretary’s office had signs posted across the city about the location of polling places and about 200 volunteer greeters in the mega-centers helping people find their precincts.

Marusak also told TNS that the state placed ads listing polling places in numerous newspapers and in public-service announcements. The secretary of state’s office received no complaints about people not being able to locate their precinct, Marusak said, and no complaints about any problems in general.

One of the key barriers before the primary was the loss of a lawsuit against the state that would have established satellite-polling centers in cites outside of Louisiana where large numbers of displaced residents are staying.

One of the key barriers before the primary was the loss of a lawsuit against the state that would have established satellite-polling centers in cites outside of Louisiana where large numbers of displaced residents are staying. For those who could not afford the time or money to make the trip back to New Orleans, absentee ballots were the only option. According to the Secretary of State’s office, about 19,000 absentee ballots have been mailed out, and they are still sending out more. For the primary, about 17,000 ballots were requested.

But this number could be misleading, as it does not include residents who could not vote absentee because they had not previously registered. State law requires that first-time voters cast their ballot in person, a requirement the Wallace v. Blanco lawsuit was trying to waive but which the judge rejected.

Some residents feared their absentee ballots were not properly received, according to Muriel Lewis, an organizer with the National Association of Katrina Evacuees.

People felt "hopeless," said Lewis, when they failed to receive certified letters acknowledging receipt of their absentee ballots. "So they thought their votes wouldn’t count," she said.

Others recounted problems attempting to fax in their ballots after encountering repeated busy signals. Steven Bradberry, head organizer with New Orleans ACORN, said this added another layer of difficulty for people already dealing with a host of personal struggles in the wake of the hurricanes.

"If you don’t have a fax machine, you have to pay to use a fax machine. People may have had to pay to use a public computer in order to download forms," said Bradberry. "There’s just so many costs and different ways people would have to pay, whether it’s a 39-cent stamp or a $390 plane ticket, it’s still a cost, and from our understanding poll taxes are illegal."

According to Louis Kellar, registrar of voters for Orleans Parish, two more fax lines have been added for Saturday’s election, bringing the total to eight, which he said should be "adequate coverage" for incoming ballots. Kellar said that delays had occurred during the primary when his staff had tried to contact senders whose ballots were incomplete or failed to come through, but the fax machine on the other end was no longer available.

Saturday’s election is important to residents beyond the immediate results of who will lead the city at a crucial juncture. According to Bradberry, people’s frustration with the voting process has less to do with selecting a candidate than with people’s inability to participate in the process.

"People know inherently that they are being jacked around," said Bradberry. "[They know] that every opportunity is not being afforded to them to return home, whether it’s dealing with the insurance companies, whether it’s dealing with FEMA, the Red Cross, even in terms of trying to access the voting process."

Dr. Ronald Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, sees deep racial implications of the whole affair. He said the April primary and general election on Saturday are "retrogressive" in terms of the ability of the black population in New Orleans to vote. Before the hurricanes, blacks made up more than 67 percent of the city’s population, according to the 2000 census.

Walters points to measures taken by the White House to help Iraqis living in the US vote by satellite in the Iraq elections – measures that were denied by Louisiana state officials for their displaced residents living out of state. Walters adds the US Justice Department should also be scrutinized for authorizing the state’s inadequate election plans.

"We really don’t understand why it is that there’s this double standard, except for the fact that the implication is that you depress the black vote" as a result, Walters told TNS. "Someone has to explain that."

Send to Friends Respond to Editors or Reporter

The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


This News Article originally appeared in the May 19, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Catherine Komp is a contributing journalist.

Recent contributions by Catherine Komp:
more