Scattered New Orleans Election Raises Concerns

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New Orleans politicians are deep into campaign mode for the April 22 citywide election. It's a strange campaign because half the potential voters are scattered around the country. The state has made some accommodations, setting up "satellite" polling stations in other Louisiana cities.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. The way is now clear for elections in New Orleans. Well, at least at far as the federal government is concerned. Last night, the Justice Department approved arrangements for the first city elections since the storms. There are more than 100 names on the ballot, 23 candidates in the mayor's race alone. But lingering doubts about fairness have some groups threatening lawsuits and some candidates worried that a court might still throw out the whole thing.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports from New Orleans.

MARTIN KASTE: The New Orleans elections office has a row of brand new fax machines to handle all the applications for absentee ballots. The registrar, Louis Keller, says they're coming in at about 500 a day.

From time to time Keller spots a familiar name.

LOUIS KELLER: Matter of fact, just a few minutes ago, I pulled one out. This guy was an employee of this office. He's retired. I'm sure he was tickled to death when he prepared the application because he know the process.

KASTE: But some national civil rights groups say many displaced New Orleanians don't know the process or can't get an absentee ballot because they're moving around so much and they're threatening to challenge the vote in federal and state courts. In Washington D.C., the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. says the reliance on absentee ballots amounts to an illegal literacy test for displaced voters. He wonders why the state legislature refused to set up so-called satellite polling stations in other states.

JESSE JACKSON: We made provisions for Iraqi Americans in 2004 to have satellite access. We made access for Mexican Americans, for Polish Americans. We made it easy for the people.

KASTE: Without out-of-state polling stations, he says blacks will lose political clout.

JACKSON: There's a hurry to vote without preparation. It's a kind of political land grab.

AL ATER: We down here feel very good, sir. I mean, I wanna tell ya, this raging controversy is just up there.

KASTE: Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater has a hard time keeping his cool when outsiders criticize this election. Ater's office is setting up 10 satellite polling stations in other cities in Louisiana. It's true, there won't be polling stations in other states, he says, but he insists that easy-to-use absentee ballots will make up for that and he points out that these arrangements got broad support from state legislators, both white and black.

ATER: They want to get on with rebuilding their lives and get on with making decisions about how that city is gonna be rebuilt and all that and they know, as I do, without a fair and free election and a legitimately elected mayor and town council, that rebuilding cannot begin in earnest.

KASTE: But even as campaign signs are sprouting on the wrought iron balconies here in New Orleans, there is a lingering sense of uncertainty.

JEAN PAUL MORRELL: Well, last night I had like a moment of like cold, hard sweat realization.

KASTE: Jean Paul Morrell manages his mother's campaign for re-election to the City Council. He worries the whole election could still be thrown out, not just because of the civil rights groups but also because of potential law suits by the losing candidates.

PAUL MORRELL: The idea of someone telling me in April, you did everything right but guess what, you gotta start all over again from scratch is really aggravating.

KASTE: Morrell is a political animal. Both parents are elected officials and he's a master of the Rolodex, but he admits to feeling at sea in this strange campaign. He can't count on the usual tools such as telephone polls and direct mail. He was hoping FEMA would share its master list of the temporary addresses of displaced residents but that was held back for privacy reasons. It now seems the only way to reach those voters is to go to them, to Atlanta and Houston and Nashville, and try to find familiar faces from District D.

KASTE: In her City Council office, Cynthia Morrell contemplates a map of her depopulated East New Orleans district. She knows other candidates are campaigning on the road but she's reluctant to leave town.

CYNTHIA HEDGE: If I do that then there are gonna be decisions made by the Corps of Engineers, there are gonna be decisions made by the mayor, who still has us under emergency. I can't be all over the country and representing the people I'm representing.

KASTE: Morrell is opting to focus on the voters who have come back. At this point she admits it's anyone's guess which strategy works best with an electorate in limbo.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, New Orleans.

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