State Sued Over Displaced Louisiana Voters

Louisiana lawmakers decided this past week to create extra polling stations around the state for displaced New Orleans voters, but they didn't make provisions for people residing out of state. Now civil rights advocates are suing the state.

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State officials in Louisiana say the cost of New Orleans city elections will quadruple this year. That's because they'll be adding polling stations around the state so hurricane evacuees will have better access to city elections. Civil rights advocates say that is not enough. They're asking a federal judge to force the state to set up satellite voting stations even outside Louisiana.

NPR's Audie Cornish has the story.

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

Both sides agree. No one is denying hurricane evacuees the right to vote, but the question is whether under the current system they're getting equal access to the polls. Right now New Orleans voters can cast a ballot in person, by mail, or more than a week in advance at satellite polling stations in ten locations around Louisiana.

State Secretary Al Ader says for displaced city voters mail-in absentee ballots should suffice.

Mr. AL ADER: (Louisiana State Secretary): Let's be realistic here. Florida's been ravaged by hurricanes. Did they do out-of-state voting? No. California's had earthquakes. New York had 9/11 and they had the elections in New York after that. Did they do out of state voting? No, they did not.

CORNISH: But people in these disasters weren't airlifted to destinations unknown or dispersed as widely around the country as the people of New Orleans. Many have moved two and three times since the storm, and their mail delivery is inconsistent. Civil rights attorneys say they want displaced New Orleanians to be able to vote the same day and in the same way as people living in the city on April 22.

Panda Hair(ph) is the attorney representing two displaced New Orleanians and the Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Council.

Ms. PANDA HAIR (Attorney): We believe that the displaced residents want to vote, they want to come back, they want to have a voice in the policies that are going to say whether it's possible for them to come back. That's what this mayors election is about. And that's why it's so important that an equal opportunity to vote be provided.

CORNISH: Plaintiff Malcolm Suber(ph) says if the U.S. can provide satellite voting booths for Iraqi elections, the thousands of primarily black hurricane evacuees should expect nothing less.

Suber used to live in the neighborhood of Gentily(ph), which was flooded out after the storm. Now he lives in Texas, and says the current voting plan means time, money and travel he can hardly afford while he's trying to rebuild long distance.

Mr. MALCOLM SUBER (Plaintiff): It takes me six hours to drive from Monroe to New Orleans. It also costs me about $100 roundtrip in gas. When you take that and multiply, and also understand that many of the people who evacuated from New Orleans had neither car nor bus, then I think you can appreciate the problems that we're faced with.

CORNISH: But Louisiana legislators had their chance to create out-of-state satellite polling stations during the last special session and chose not to. Some argued that citizens are applying for everything from FEMA benefits to housing assistance online or over the phone, and they should do the same in order to vote.

Representative Francis Thomas is a Democrat who voted for in-state polling stations, but didn't support satellite voting booths nationwide.

Representative FRANCIS THOMAS (Democrat, Louisiana): My main reason was that I worry about fraud and abuse, I worry about how well it'll be done, I worry about the cost of the election, who's going to pay for it. We wouldn't have control over the funding. If we vote within the state, we have the control.

CORNISH: State Secretary Aders says he doesn't have the staff or money to create secure out-of-state polls by April. But plaintiff Malcolm Suber says he worries campaigning candidates will end up ignoring the large populations of evacuees who are already struggling to keep up with the news back home.

U.S. District Court Judge Ivan Lammell(ph) is set to issue a ruling in the case today.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, New Orleans.

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