The storm in New Orleans is far from over. A federal judge has refused to delay the April 22 municipal elections after civil rights groups and leaders petitioned the elections would develop problems for displaced residents to vote.
The refusal has lead to accusations of racism and discrimination against black voters, who represent more than half of the residents who are still displaced. Are civil rights leaders correct? Is the continuation of having these municipal elections disenfranchising the displaced residents who are mostly black? Yes.
In a March Associated Press article, black leaders said “the state’s plan to allow mail voting for residents around the nation, along with early voting at ‘satellite’ polling places in the state does not do enough to provide all displaced residents – most of them black – with the opportunity to vote.” This could very well be a repeat of Florida’s voting catastrophe in the 2000 presidential election. How can New Orleans be sure of that all absentee ballots will be accounted for?
Is there a guarantee these ballots will reach displaced residents? Will displaced residents be able to reach these ‘satellite’ polling places? There is no guarantee because of delays in postal services in New Orleans and the difficulty to account for every displaced resident participating in these elections. New Orleans is looking at another disaster in the making.
Federal District Court Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle of New Orleans said he believes the continuation of these elections is not a result of discrimination. In a March New York Times article, Judge Lemelle said the elections will not “disenfranchise tens of thousands of blacks.” He has declined to ease restrictions on absentee voting that limit it to people who have voted at least once in person in previous elections with some exceptions.
He also refuses to order out-of-state voting centers. “The elections must go forward,” Lemelle said. But these elections cannot go forward if exceptions are not made. New Orleans has to ensure that its residents’ right to vote will not be violated, particularly black voters. With no exceptions and accommendations being made by officials, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will be violated.
According to a recent Associated Press article, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other activists are demanding satellite polling locations for displaced voters in cities outside New Orleans and Louisiana. They made this perfectly clear during a rally at the convention center on Saturday in New Orleans. Jackson commented in the article, “We want the Voting Rights Act.”
Black voters are not wrong for feeling “left out” and “indentured.” Since they made up nearly 70 percent of New Orleans’ population before Katrina struck, their voting presence would definitely be felt in these elections.
These elections are significant because it marks the rebuilding of the city and the determination to become better despite these difficulties. It is important for these elections to take place, which includes the election of a new mayor, officials for City Council and other offices. But it will be unfair to the voter whose vote isn’t accounted for because of delayed postal services or the inability to afford to return to Louisiana to vote at one of the state’s polling locations.
Delaying the elections will not hurt New Orleans, but it will prevent any violations from occurring. Displaced voters will not feel “unaccounted for,” but more at ease about who will be elected in the municipal offices. Since it doesn’t look as if there will be a delay, officials need to rethink their decision on not supporting out-of-state polling places for displaced residents. New Orleans does not need another disaster.
Mary L. Wilson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.