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All politics is local

New Orleans | Race relations, partisanship, and a city's rate of recovery clash in the Big Easy's first post-Katrina election

Issue: "Meltdown," April 22, 2006

In New Orleans and satellite sites around Louisiana, voting has begun in a mayoral election that may well blow incumbent Ray Nagin out of City Hall. Twenty-two candidates are challenging the reelection bid by Mr. Nagin, a black man whose post-hurricane leadership many critics said consisted more of finger-pointing and race-baiting than practical policy. The mayor drew sharp criticism in January after promising in a speech to make New Orleans, long a black urban power base and Democratic stronghold, a "chocolate city" again.

On April 10, the first day of early voting in advance of general balloting slated for April 22, two buses bearing hurricane-displaced voters rolled from Houston into Lake Charles, La., a satellite polling site. "I would have walked to New Orleans if I had to," Elaine Stovall, 62, told reporters after making the 140-mile trip. "I would be less than a good citizen if I wasn't out here doing this."

Ms. Stovall and other Big Easy diaspora were among about 650 registered New Orleans voters who cast early ballots at 10 satellite polling places around the state. On the same day, about a thousand more voted in the city itself. Early voting was one element of a comprehensive voter-outreach and education regimen that Secretary of State Al Ater and Louisiana legislators prescribed in Katrina's wake.

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Before the storm submerged the city, New Orleans was home to half a million people, about 70 percent of them African-American. Fewer than 200,000 residents have returned, but as of March 17, the city's voter rolls bore 297,112 names. Some reports say most of those who have returned are white, but Celeste Lay, an assistant professor of political science at Tulane University, said competing reports "show that the metro area looks much like it did before Katrina."

With whole neighborhoods still in ruins and recovery efforts lagging, Mr. Ater's department has invested $3.5 million in mailers, website tutorials, telephone hotlines, election monitors, and satellite voting locations, hoping to give as many displaced voters as possible a voice in the city's future.

"It's an unprecedented response" to an unprecedented disaster, said Mr. Ater's spokesperson, Jennifer Marusak. "In a normal year, the entire mayoral election costs only $450,000. This year we spent $737,000 on mailers alone."

With Katrina refugees scattered across the country, and with high concentrations in states like Texas and Georgia, Louisiana lawmakers had considered a proposal to establish out-of-state polling places. But they rejected the idea, citing logistical considerations: What, for example, would be considered a "critical mass" of displaced voters sufficient to merit a satellite site? And how would election monitors verify remote voters' intentions to return permanently to New Orleans?

The final solution for voters stranded outside Louisiana: mass quantities of mail-in ballots. Ms. Marusak said the secretary of state's office received 14,000 requests for mail-in ballots for the April 22 election, compared with just 2,570 such requests in the mayoral election of February 2002. As of April 11, only about 1,000 voters had returned the ballots.

Critics of Mr. Ater's bend-over-backwards methods have said satellite polling places and high numbers of mail-in ballots create the potential for vote fraud. But others downplayed the risk: "I personally tend to believe that mischief in terms of deliberate fraud is overblown," said Ms. Lay, who had supported out-of-state satellite sites for New Orleans voters awaiting the disposition of insurance and FEMA claims. "There's certainly potential there. But there's potential in all elections for that."

A 368-page report issued in 2005 by the nonpartisan American Center for Voting Rights on voting irregularities in the 2004 presidential election cataloged no incidents of vote fraud in New Orleans. But electoral shenanigans are not unknown in the city. In 1996, after losing a squeaker to Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, Republican Woody Jenkins alleged dirty pool. According to a National Review report, voters told Mr. Jenkins' investigators that Democratic campaign workers in New Orleans had driven them to multiple polling places, promising to pay them to vote the party line at each stop.

"Hey, hey all I got was $25!" one woman said. "We went to three places. The agreement was we was supposed to get $25 each place." Instead, campaign workers gave the woman a Mary Landrieu T-shirt: "They promise you, and then they going give us ol' stanky T-shirt[s] with her picture on it."

In the current electoral contest, an April 8 survey of registered New Orleans voters showed Sen. Landrieu's brother, Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who is white, in a dead heat with Mayor Nagin.

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