Posted March 24, 2006 -- First they were battered, brutalized by Hurricane Katrina, and scattered to more than 40 states more than six months ago. Then the federal government botched the rescue and relief effort.
Now, a group of civil rights, business and civic leaders say, the residents of New Orleans are about to be further victimized if U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco allow municipal elections on April 22 to go forward.
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The Justice Department recently “precleared” proposed changes to polling places, precinct locations and practices of the elections, over the strenuous objections of critics.
Florida in the Making?
In three weeks, officials in the City of New Orleans will hold elections in which hundreds of thousands of eligible voters could cast votes, but with about half of the city’s minority voters spread over more than 40 states, civil rights and other leaders are questioning the validity of such an election.
Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans, said the conditions under which the election are to be held would call into question any result.
“This is a Florida in the making,” said Morial, referring to the disputed 2000 presidential elections. “(The situation) is cumbersome, complex and confusing. Failure of the state to establish satellite voting makes no sense and invites confusion … residents of New Orleans deserve to have a voice in who will lead the community.”
National Call to Action
To drive home their opposition, a raft of national organizations are preparing to hold a demonstration and rally in Gretna, near New Orleans on April 1, 2006.
“There is a national call to action taking place in New Orleans around the Civil Rights Act,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Inc. “We are marching for the right of return of all New Orleans citizens, the right to organize, the right to vote and priority on jobs, job training and job contracts.”
Jackson said there are plans to hold a demonstration and rally in New Orleans on April 1.
Return to an Unnerving Site
Demonstrators will march across the Gretna Bridge and hold the rally at “high noon,” he said. The bridge was chosen as the starting point because that’s the point where New Orleans residents seeking to flee flood waters were turned back by police officers who came to the Algiers section of the city and drove back residents with a flurry of gunfire.
Jackson and his colleagues were at a Friday morning news conference at the National Press Club in downtown Washington, D.C., where they pressed home the need to fight the attempt by Gov. Blanco and the U.S. Justice Department to push ahead with the election.
Latifa Myles, of the National Organization of Women, said the situation illustrates the importance of staying vigilant.
“The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed to counteract the systematic racist barriers, intimidation and discrimination against African voters,’ she said. “Yet today, more than 40 years later, these same barriers affect residents of New Orleans, and we saw it across the nation during the past two presidential elections.
“We must demand an end to the mistreatment of Katrina survivors and stand together as leaders, activists and good neighbors, and refuse to allow the government to ignore them once more.”
New Orleans residents who wish to vote face daunting challenges. There are not adequate provisions for them to vote in the states they now live because Blanco won’t agree to the use of satellite polling stations.
Also, the Louisiana Secretary of State has refused to provide elected officials, candidates and other groups or individuals with copies of a voter roll of displaced voters, Jackson said.
Roderick Hawkins, Blanco’s deputy press secretary, said that Blanco signed bills passed by the Louisiana Legislature in a special session in February.
“It wasn’t the governor’s decision,” he said. “There was heavy debate about voting rights in general. The governor spoke out in support of those bills but she didn’t have the final say.”
Hawkins said the election date and other provisions of the elections are the responsibility and purview of the Secretary of State’s Office and Secretary of State Al Ater.
“The governor felt comfortable with the strategy for voting and other election recommendations made by the secretary of State,” he said.
Jennifer Marusak, a spokeswoman for Ater, disputed some of their critics’ contentions.
“Our job is to make sure the vote is accessible, accurate and accountable and that’s what we’re doing,” she said.
The Secretary of State’s Office announced the election date after getting permission from a federal court and the U.S. Department of Justice, she added.
As to the suggestion that satellite polling stations be set up in other states, Marusak said her office’s hands are tied. It’s illegal and against Louisiana law to set up satellite locations,” she explained.
Access to Voter Rolls Denied
“However, Orleaneans can vote by mail.”
Three weeks out from the election, the office has received about 10,000 requests for absentee ballots. In the last mayoral race, Marusak said, residents requested 2,500 of these ballots.
Jackson and Louisiana State Sen. Cleo Fields have complained about being denied copies of updated voter rolls.
Marusak said anyone who requests it can get a copy of the voter registration list, but a judge has prohibited the Secretary of State’s Office from sharing information from a list that FEMA compiled.
“A judge has said that we can’t, and we can’t go against what the judge said,” she said. “We have to follow the law.”
Speakers described a city where much of the infrastructure is still inoperable, electricity and other services spotty or nonexistent, and mail service unavailable in large swathes of the city. As a consequence, the minority vote will be diluted and the majority of the city’s scattered populace disenfranchised, they explained.
Jacqueline Berrien, associate director and counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, cited the case of 18-year-old New Orleans resident Donald Jolly, despite being eligible to vote, will not be able to cast his ballot unless he physically returns to New Orleans. The fact that he is not financially able to make the trip will likely mean that he won’t be able to vote.
“The question is at the end of the day, do we have the will to do what’s right?” asked Melanie L. Campbell, executive director and CEO of The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. “This is voter disenfranchisement by attrition ... We have an opportunity as a country to do what’s right…”
Despite what others have said, above all else, everyone who opposes what’s happening in New Orleans is more concerned about the federal government upholding voting rights standards, Jackson said.
No Dog in the Fight
“…This is a demonstration of our commitment to the Voting Rights Act, not an attempt to exert influence,” said NAACP President Bruce Gordon. “We have no candidate, no dog in this fight.”
Critics are more concerned, Gordon said, of the outcome. In 2004, Gordon explained, voting in New Orleans was plagued with incomplete voter rolls, not enough provisional ballots, long lines and voter confusion over the location of polling places.
“On this go round, therefore, we need to pursue extraordinary means” to ensure a fair election.
Berrien said her organization has invited New Orleans residents in Houston, Atlanta, New Orleans and other cities to participate in voter empowerment forums where they can meet prospective candidates and learn about how they can exercise their right to vote among other activities.
“We’re working on Plan B because we don’t want people to be surprised, confused or disenfranchised because of lack of preparation,” she said.