NEW ORLEANS—New Orleans residents living in Houston, Atlanta and other cities are still waiting for the absentee ballots they applied for weeks ago. No one knows how many people will come back to the city to vote, and the polling places have yet to be selected.
Pulling off this city's April 22 mayoral election could wind up as a fine example of democracy under trying circumstances, or a wobbly, error-filled embarrassment.
On Monday, a federal judge refused to postpone New Orleans' first election since Hurricane Katrina, despite complaints from civil rights groups that too many Blacks scattered by the storm will be unable to take part.
U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle told both sides to solve any problems that might hinder displaced residents' ability to vote. "I recognize that there is still room for improvement in that electoral process," he said.
Still, Lemelle said going ahead with the voting will help the city rebuild.
"If you are a displaced citizen, like I am, we have a burning desire for completeness," said the judge, whose own New Orleans home flooded.
The Aug. 29 storm swamped 80 percent of the city, destroying some polling places and scattering more than half the population. What was a mostly Black city of nearly half a million people was reduced to well under 200,000 inhabitants. Some Black leaders fear a loss of political clout if the election goes ahead as planned.
Some civil rights leaders say the state's plan to allow mail voting for residents in other states, along with satellite polling places elsewhere in Louisiana, won't do enough to give all displaced residents the opportunity to vote.
"We can see that train wreck coming in slow motion," plaintiffs' attorney Bill Quigley said.
The city elections originally were scheduled for Feb. 4 but were postponed because of the damage and dislocation caused by Katrina.
Secretary of State Al Ater, Louisiana's top election official, said he was prepared to work with the plaintiffs and the judge. "I'm very proud of what we're doing," he said.
The state is setting up polling stations in 10 Louisiana cities, running a national advertising campaign to inform New Orleans residents about the election and easing the rules on the casting of absentee ballots.
Mayor Ray Nagin, a Black man criticized by some for his response to the hurricane, is running for re-election against nearly two dozen opponents, including Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who is White.
Monday's hearing was called after the NAACP and other civil rights groups argued that the cost of traveling to New Orleans to vote amounted to the "modern equivalent of a poll tax" — something outlawed a generation ago by an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Election procedures in Louisiana and many other Southern states are subject to Justice Department approval because of their history of racial discrimination.
Several Black leaders have argued for satellite voting locations outside Louisiana. But Ater's office said state law does not allow out-of-state voting operations.
"This is a Florida in the making," warned National Urban League President Marc Morial, a former New Orleans mayor, referring to the debacle during the 2000 White House race.
— The Associated Press