Katrina Wallops Black Voters

President Bush, Karl Rove, and top GOP strategists would never publicly gloat over Katrina's unintended political consequence. But there was a big and potentially lethal one for black voters and the Democratic Party. Nature's catastrophe scattered thousands of poor, black Democratic voters throughout more than 30 states from New Hampshire to California. That could dilute black voter and Democratic strength in Louisiana, and the South.

Black voters make up one third of the state's voters, and nearly one-half of New Orleans voters. They gave Clinton more than 90 percent of the vote in 1992 and 1996. That propelled him to victory over Bush Sr. and Robert Dole, and helped break the GOP stranglehold on state offices.

It also momentarily dented the GOP's Southern strategy. The strategy entailed saying and doing as little as possible about civil rights, actively courting conservative whites, and subtly pandering to the bigotry of Dixiecrats turned Republicans. Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Sr. (in his 1988 win) banked on that to grab the White House. Transforming Louisiana, with its nine electoral votes, into a crucial swing state, forced the GOP to pour resources, time, and energy into the state to win it.

Though Bush decisively beat Democratic presidential contenders Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004, the top heavy black vote for them enabled Democrats to bag many top state and local offices in Louisiana, but just narrowly. A shift of a few thousand votes could tip those offices back to Republicans. The loss of thousands of black votes could also crack the thirty years of unbroken black, and Democratic dominance of City Hall in New Orleans. The streets were barely dry in New Orleans blackest, and poorest wards, when there was talk that a white Republican may challenge black Congressional Democrat William Jefferson.

If the majority of black voters in Jefferson's district don't return, and the likelihood is that many won't, that could make the GOP dream of seizing the Democratic Congressional seat more than just talk. Black voter dispersal could also spell trouble for Mayor Ray Nagin. He grabbed a majority of the white votes in his surprise election victory in 2002. That could easily change in 2006. He's up for reelection, and a white candidate that plays hard on the widespread perception that Nagin, as Bush, also bungled the city's relief efforts could rally white voters.


The future of black vote strength in Louisiana depends on who comes back to the city and state, and when. Many of the mostly white upscale parts of New Orleans received relatively minor storm damage. The voters in these areas will stay, and those whose homes were damaged have the resources to rebuild them. Many of them are Republican. Thousands of poor blacks don't have the resources to rebuild.

Even if many blacks choose to live permanently in the states they relocated to, that could dilute their vote, and further marginalize their political power. To prevent that, the NAACP and other voter groups have called on Congress to pass emergency legislation to extend special protections of the Voting Rights Act, which will expire in 2007, to displaced Louisiana voters.

The aim is to insure that they can vote without restrictions in the places where they relocated. There's little chance that GOP Congressional leaders will do that. They insist that there are enough protections to prevent state officials from tampering with voting laws and procedures. The Act currently requires that the Justice Department or federal courts must approve any changes in vote procedures that involve redistricting, district annexation, registration requirements, holding at large elections, and methods to qualify candidates to safeguard against discrimination.

But this hasn't stopped states from making changes in voting procedures that hurt minority voters. That includes changing, or consolidating polling place locations, tightening voter identification procedures, and adding new and tougher requirements on the timing for filing absentee ballots.

State officials claim that the changes were made to prevent fraud or streamline the voting process. There's no evidence that the changes were deliberately made to thin the ranks of minority voters. Still, if minority voters don't have proper identification, have not been informed of polling changes, or locations, or don't have transportation to get to them, they could be shut of the voting booth. The identification documents of thousands of blacks displaced by Katrina was destroyed or lost in flight.

Even with no polling restrictions, or roadblocks, the vote power of the evacuees could still be crippled. Black political strength lay in their numbers and concentration in key states such as Louisiana. Dispersal reduces them to a blip on the political chart in far-flung states they've ended up in. That further waters down their voting strength, and potential political clout.

Katrina destroyed the fortunes of thousands of New Orleans blacks, while potentially boasting the political fortunes of the GOP. That certainly hasn't escaped Bush and Rove.

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