Thousands of New Orleans Voters Can't Get to Polls

With less than a week before the primary vote for New Orleans mayor, it's estimated that thousands of displaced residents won't be able to get to the polls. Ed Gordon talks with Ted Shaw, director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

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ED GORDON, host:

Kimberly Samuels and her husband have been organizing bus trips to get displaced voters to the polls in New Orleans. A number of leading Civil Rights groups have teamed to make sure every eligible New Orleans voter who wants to vote can. Their campaign includes a voter's outreach hotline, public service announcements, and voter empowerment centers in cities like Atlanta and Houston.

We're joined know by Ted Shaw, director counsel and president of the NAACP legal defense fund. He joins us here in our New York Bureau, and at our headquarters in Washington, D.C., Barbara Arwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law is with us. I thank you both. We greatly appreciate it. Barbara, let me start with you.

When you hear from a woman like Kimberly Samuels, and you hear all of what she has gone through, talk to us about the bigger picture of the importance of making sure that this election is fair and just.

Ms. BARBARA ARWINE (Executive Director, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law): What's beautiful about the Kimberly Samuels story is just how determined she is to vote, and how she's, you know, struggled with her life problems, and how she is still committed to her city. The problem that we have out there throughout the nation is that so many of the evacuees from New Orleans, some 90,000 to 120,000 registered voters spread out over 47 states, many who are still fighting for just basic life realities--where they're going to live, how they're going to pay the next rent, how they're going to buy groceries, where their children are going to be in school next semester--all of these really crushing life problems. And on top of it, they've got to think about voting.

So, one of the things that we've done, and why Ted and I are here today, is that we really believe so strongly that people need help, that they need assistance and that we don't want them worrying about all of those things Kimberly said about when they should vote, how they should vote. So, we set up, you know, two very beautiful resources that people can use. One is the hotline, the 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline, which is 1-866-687-8683. And we tell people all of the time, you know, use the hotline. Call people, because there's lawyers who are trained, who are there for no other purpose but to help you vote on the other side, and can give you all the information you want. And Ted will describe the beautiful Web site, the Katrina Vote Web site that has also been set up.

GORDON: Ted, talk to me about that, and also talk to me again about the bigger picture here. There are a lot of people who say this is all well and good, but what does this mean to me in Ohio? What does this mean to me in Florida? What does this mean to me in California? And to a great degree, this has bigger implications than just New Orleans.

Mr. TED SHAW (Director-counsel, and President of NAACP Legal Defense Fund): Well, it does, Ed. And the Web site to which Barbara was referring is called Katrinavote.org. And all of the information about the election and the procedures, the deadlines, everything is in that Web site, and I encourage people to use that as well as the hotline, 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline.

The big picture is this, there are people spread out throughout a Diaspora of New Orleanians who are all over the country. And, in some places, they're concentrated in significant numbers, and some not as many numbers. But this is something that is unprecedented. We've never seen this kind of crisis, and there are people who are still New Orleanians who plan on returning to New Orleans. And they have a right to participate in choosing their representatives. They've lived there, many of them, most all of their lives. So they have as much at stake in New Orleans as anybody else who is there now. Now, the other thing is is that New Orleans is being remade, and people are aware of that. And some people think that a new New Orleans, in order to be better, has to be less black--has to be whiter, to be direct about it. We believe that everybody, regardless of race, regardless of wealth, has a right of return, and everyone has a right to participate in a democracy there.

As many of us keep saying, if we were able to set up out-of-nation polling places for Iraqis in the United States to vote in the first democratic elections in Iraq, we could go a long way, including setting up out-of-state polling places, which the court has refused to order and the state has refused to do, to promote democracy here at home.

GORDON: Barbara Arnwine, isn't it also important to make sure that these people, who have already felt disenfranchised, don't do so through this process? Many of them, right now, feel that this is and there are hindrances to their ability to cast their vote.

Ms. ARNWINE: Yes, and I think it's critical that people, if they're in Houston, Atlanta, Massachusetts, Chicago, Seattle--that they're all aware that they can vote from where they're living right now, that they do not have to come to New Orleans, that they actually can call and receive an--request an absentee ballot by phone, that they can fax the request for that absentee ballot, that that absentee ballot can be faxed to them. They can fill it out, sign it, and fax it back. So it's very important for people to be aware that you don't have to lose your voting rights just because you can't come back to New Orleans on April the 22nd, which is this Saturday, when the election is being held.

But people who want an absentee ballot, they need to make that request as soon as possible. And that's why if they want to get help about how to make that request, how to proceed--they need to go to the hotline, the 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline or 1-866-687-8683--and they can have people who can help them figure out how to get their absentee ballot. The one thing we don't want happening is in a big election year, like '06, we do not want it to start off with massive disenfranchisement of African-Americans. That would be an ominous sign, and we can't have that. And this, by the way, is the primary on Saturday.

GORDON: Ted, with about 30 seconds to go, as Barbara suggests, we want to make sure that people understand that this is just the beginning.

Mr. SHAW: Well, that's right, and the primary's on Saturday. On May 20th, the general election will be held, and people, who are properly registered to vote can vote in both of those, and should vote in both of those.

GORDON: All right. Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, and Ted Shaw, director-counsel and president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, I thank you both for joining us.

Mr. SHAW: Appreciate it.

Ms. ARNWINE: Thank you, so much, Ed.

GORDON: Coming up next, indictments come down in the Duke Lacrosse case; and five black students are arrested in a fraternity hazing incident. We'll discuss these topics and more on our roundtable, up next.

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