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Kerry Calls For Voting Rights for Katrina Victims

Kerry Calls on Justice Department to Protect Voting Rights for Victims of Katrina

Current election plan will deny voting rights for tens of thousands of Louisiana residents

WASHINGTON – Today, Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) sent a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and John Tanner, Chief of the Voting Section at the Department of Justice, urging them to immediately reconsider approval of a voting plan that will disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters in the upcoming Louisiana elections.

Kerry opposes the Department of Justice’s decision to allow the April 22 election in Louisiana to take place without first addressing the fact that tens of thousands of residents – disproportionately African Americans – will be unable to cast their votes.

Kerry is urging the Justice Department to set up satellite voting stations in cities outside Louisiana where large numbers of Katrina evacuees are living, similar to the satellite voting opportunities made available to Iraqi voters living in the United States during the recent Iraq elections. Kerry is also calling for the voting system to be strengthened in communities affected by Katrina before the elections take place.

Below is a copy of the letter:

April 3, 2006

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales

United States Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20530

John K. Tanner, Esq.

Chief, Voting Section

Civil Rights Division

United States Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20530

Dear Attorney General Gonzales and Mr. Tanner:

I am writing to express my disappointment in your decision to pre-clear the state of Louisiana’s election plan for the April 22 election in New Orleans and to urge your reconsideration. In light of the tremendous number of displaced citizens who would be disenfranchised in next month’s election, as well as problems that face voters who remain in the city, the Department of Justice should not have given its approval.

The people affected by Hurricane Katrina are disproportionately African American. Orleans Parish lost up to 48% of its voting population and 75% of those displaced voters are African Americans. The Voting Rights Act was passed to protect all voters and ensure that minority voting strength is not diluted at the polls. Intentional or not, allowing next month’s election to take place will exclude an inexcusably large number of New Orleans’s African American voters.

Hundreds of thousands of displaced New Orleans citizens are spread out across the country, with significant numbers in dozens of cities from Los Angeles to Chicago. According to the Louisiana Secretary of State, two-thirds of those people who were displaced currently reside outside the state of Louisiana. Although the state government has chosen to create satellite voting locations within the state for displaced voters, it has refused to create similar satellite voting locations outside the state in cities where thousands of New Orleans voters find themselves stranded.

Without satellite voting locations outside the state of Louisiana, tens of thousands of residents will be denied the right to vote. As a practical matter, the city’s current infrastructure could not handle the return of these voters—even if they were able to make the long and costly journey back in order to cast their vote. The only way that these citizens will be guaranteed the right to vote is to provide for satellite voting outside of Louisiana. Cities hosting Katrina evacuees have the facilities; they have the election workers; and they have the voting machines. The magnitude of this national disaster has not diminished as time as passed; protecting evacuees’ right to vote now is just as critical as providing food and shelter was in the immediate aftermath. During the recent elections in Iraq, the American government provided satellite voting for Iraqi citizens who had not lived in their country for years. It was the right thing to do then, and we ought to extend the same service to our own citizens now.

Even voters who remain in Orleans Parish are likely to face great difficulty in casting a ballot. Many of the voting sites used for years were destroyed by flooding, and a number of the new polling places submitted by the state for pre-clearance are unsuitable. Furthermore, little information has been provided to city residents about changes that have been, or will be, made in election procedures.

The strength of our democracy rests on the integrity of our elections. If we are to have faith in the representative nature of our government, we need to take every reasonable precaution to ensure that every one of our eligible citizens has the opportunity to cast a ballot.

I do not understand how the Department of Justice could approve a plan that threatens the civil rights of hundreds of thousands of citizens rather than postponing the upcoming elections until a suitable plan could be developed. I urge you to reconsider your decision.

Sincerely,

John F. Kerry

United States Senator

###

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