When Hurricane Katrina broke the levees in New Orleans, it did more than reveal the unimaginable scope of the storm's destruction and the work left to be done to rebuild this magnificent city. Democracy itself is now in a state of disaster, threatening to disenfranchise thousands of registered voters. As New Orleans rebuilds, involving all the people in the decisions of their government is of the utmost importance.
Louisiana officials are still scrambling to deal with a dilemma that no state has ever had to confront — the displacement of hundreds of thousands of registered voters. Many consider Louisiana's response a test of the democratic process. The first major test of Louisiana's crippled electoral system will come this April when 38 of the state's 64 parishes, including New Orleans and others affected by last year's hurricanes, will hold elections.
Because the right to vote is essential to the effective operation of a democratic government, it was assumed that the Louisiana Legislature would have a strong interest in securing the right to vote for any person temporarily displaced by Katrina. Clearly, Katrina survivors will undoubtedly experience greater difficulty exercising their right due to their displaced status, especially displaced New Orleans residents who need to vote at satellite voting locations near their current or temporary residences.
Unfortunately, the Louisiana Legislature initially rejected authorizing the Secretary of State to establish early voting sites and/or election day polling sites in states where, according to the Fedral EmergencyManagement Administration list, 5,000 or more temporarily displaced residents currently reside. Only until the Louisiana Black Caucus physically walked out of the legislative session on Feb. 12 did the Legislature finally authorize voting sites throughout Louisiana.
But this is not enough.
Satellite voting should be allowed in states outside of Louisiana to provide Katrina survivors with an equal opportunity to vote in states where they have migrated — from California to New York. If the United States can help Iraqis residing in this country to vote — half a world away — why can't displaced Americans be afforded the ability to vote outside of the state of Louisiana?
Regardless of political affiliation, this country should and must support all efforts that afford the full citizenship rights of all Louisianans with the same enthusiasm and faith in democratic principles that are being touted in our own foreign policy. At a minimum, those who believe in spreading democracy around the globe should rally to secure the right to vote here at home.
Now that brings us to the elephant in the flood — race.
Our country does not always function as a just democracy for all its members. Particularly among poor communities and communities of color, large numbers of citizens in the voting-age population continue to face practices and mechanics that impede access to polling places. The response — or lack of response — from all levels of government to the continued needs of hurricane survivors have once again amplified the need to reform the institutions that have consistently failed people of color, voting being one of them.
The majority of displaced residents are African American. The racial composition of those who are still displaced and those who have been able to return require special steps to ensure that procedures and practices in the upcoming elections do not hinder members of any racial or ethnic group from participating.
Election officials should analyze aggressively the racial impact of all of their election plans to ensure that all voters, whether currently residing in their voting jurisdiction or not, have an equal opportunity to register, to vote and to have their vote counted.
The foundation of our democratic form of government is the right to vote. Voting is the most important tool Americans have to influence the policies the government adopts that affect every aspect of our lives — from tax policy, to preserving our environment, to protecting equal opportunity in housing and employment. In short, voting is power.
Survivors of Katrina have already lost so much. Should they really lose the one thing that will give them a say in their future? If lawmakers or the federal courts don't do the right thing, the oft-used message to "exercise your right to vote" may be no more than fool's gold for many Katrina survivors.
Marc H. Morial is president of the National Urban League.