New Orleans: Repeating Its Mistakes?

Last month, New Orleans held its first election since Hurricane Katrina. Most New Orleanians were especially eager to have a say in the mayoral race, and for good reason: the winner will interpret and implement the much-debated "Bring Back New Orleans" plan, determining the future of the city and its residents.

But for people displaced by the hurricane, the voting process proved so difficult and complicated as to deny them a voice in the election. Statistics released by Louisiana Secretary of State showed that African- American voter turnout was down in the April 22 primary, while white voter turnout was essentially unchanged. Black New Orleanians -- those hardest hit by the storm -- are facing the steepest barriers to participation.

Those barriers begin with a lack of information; candidates do not know where many voters are because FEMA has not made its lists widely available. Then there's the act of voting itself. To vote on April 22nd, displaced New Orleanians had to get back to Louisiana somehow, then try to confirm whether voting locations had changed again for the 12 th time in 6 weeks. The voter education and bussing effort led by nonprofits was admirable -- a coalition that included the Ms. Foundation for Women attempted to bus people in from Houston, Memphis, Jackson, Atlanta and Dallas. But with limited funds, person power, and government support, it was not nearly as successful as it could have been. More importantly, government should have led the effort to protect citizens' voting rights, with nonprofits playing a supporting role.

You may be wondering why displaced residents didn't simply fill out an absentee ballot and be done with it. But for evacuees, the absentee voting process was anything but easy. Displaced residents faced a ludicrously complex system in casting their ballots from afar.

The region's postal service is still recovering, making the required three mail transactions (sending a ballot in, receiving a reply, then sending it in again) inefficient and vulnerable to major glitches. And if an evacuee opted to use a fax-in system (assuming he or she had access to a fax machine), the voter needed to be aware not only of the deadline date, but of the designated hours within that day when the ballot could be received. A special faxed affidavit is also required waiving the right to privacy. And before an absentee ballot can be submitted, there is a 20-page application process.

The most outrageous part of it all is that the primary election took place anyway, despite warnings that the system would surely exclude large numbers of voters. Adding insult to injury, Saturday's runoff is now scheduled to take place, with virtually no attempt to remedy the barriers that have already disenfranchised so many displaced residents.

Absentee votes have begun to come in for the May 20 election, and the numbers have been so slim that even the candidates admit they will now limit campaigning outside of New Orleans. In other words, displaced New Orleanians have been further excluded, not only from the election, but from the political debate that will decide if, when and how they can return to their homes.

What will it take to give these Americans an opportunity to vote and have a voice in matters that affect their families, their children, their right of return? Federal and state officials could begin by enforcing the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits electoral procedures that have the effect of disproportionately excluding voters of any racial group. It's also not too late for officials to focus financial, logistical, and human resources on getting voters to the polls and assisting absentee voters.

In the longer term, this experience shows that reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act, which will expire soon, is crucial. A public investment in voting systems, voting technology and training of election officials is also essential.

Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath revealed the stark poverty and racial inequality that still deny opportunity to so many Americans. And after all that the Katrina evacuees have been through, they are again being denied a hallmark of opportunity -- this time, it's a say in their future. If the American Dream is still about believing in opportunity, then we have to believe there is a better way.


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