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The Disenfranchisement Of Katrina's Survivors

Adding Insult to Injury for Katrina Survivors
- Barriers to Voting Due to Inadequate State & Local Efforts
- Two Law Suits Fail to Remedy the Situation.

Special for "Scoop" Independent Media
Michael Collins

Does this Katrina evacuee have the right to vote in the upcoming New Orleans municipal elections? Without a doubt but her prospects have been limited by an unresponsive state legislature and Federal authorities.


Wash. DC. - Two court decisions this weekend create barriers to voting for hurricane Katrina survivors spread around the United States. The U.S. District Court of Louisiana (Eastern) denied a lawsuit that sought to delay elections and allow special measures to enable voting by several hundred thousand displaced New Orleans evacuees. Advancement Project, a civil rights organization, filed the suit with ACORN (a national community rights organization) and individual voters.

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The suit asked for immediate relief for displaced voters through satellite polling places in major evacuee locales, publicity efforts in these areas to let people know their right to vote, and an expanded form of identification to include Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Red Cross documentation with a New Orleans address. The suit also asked the court to declare that the Louisiana legislature's Act 40 and the Secretary of State's emergency voting plan "impose a severe burden on displaced voters' fundamental right to vote."

After the judge ruled against the Plaintiffs, Advancement issued a statement saying, "Advancement Project is extremely disappointed at the recent ruling of Judge Ivan Lemelle (a Clinton appointee) against providing satellite polling places to Katrina evacuees currently residing outside of the state of Louisiana." The statement went on to note that current election law "fails to ensure that displaced residents will be able to exercise their voting rights - and that thousands of displaced victims of Katrina will have to travel great distances in order to cast their ballot."


A second loss in state court.

In the second case, Louisiana State District Court Judge William Morvant, Baton Rouge, ruled out candidate access to potential voters by denying New Orleans candidates access to a FEMA list of addresses for evacuees. This is the most comprehensive list of evacuees and their current locations. The Louisiana Attorney General and Secretary of State have the list. It is unclear whether FEMA would release the list even if the court had allowed it. State Representatives Charmaine Marchand and Cedric Richmond are seeking the list to contact voters and encourage voting. They represent the sections of New Orleans hardest hit by hurricane damage which were predominantly black. The American Civil Liberties Union opposed the release on the basis of privacy rights.

Judge Morvant noted that the plaintiffs failed to prove that this was a "voting list" or public document. He left the door open for an expected appeal (Morvant previously ruled that the states anti-gay laws were unconstitutional, a ruling reversed by the Louisiana Supreme Court). This prompted State Senator Cleo Fields, D, Baton Rouge, to term the upcoming primaries "secret elections" since voters have no way to gain information about the candidates or their positions. Fields went on to say: "How are these people going to run for office if they can't get in touch with their constituents? Ninety-seven percent of the people in their districts have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina." (From Baton Rouge Channel 2)


Demographics and disaster.

Before Katrina, New Orleans had a population of 462,000 people in 2004. Today that population is just over 130,000. Before Katrina, the population was predominantly black. Today, there is parity between blacks and whites, or a slight advantage for whites, a first for New Orleans in decades. This is the backdrop for the legal actions. The Federal filing noted Katrina's disproportionate impact in minority and poor voters and sought relief under civil rights laws.

The central problem argued in U.S. District Court (Eastern) of Louisiana concerned the unique situation in which a majority of the voters are in temporary residence outside the city limits. Sections of the city that are predominantly white suffered less damage than the black neighborhoods. In those areas, with 75% of the residents black and almost a third below the poverty line, floods devastated the housing and facilities. The state suit by Sen. Fields is more focused on being able informing voters of candidate positions through an ability to contact potential voters.

Click for big version

Population Estimates Post Hurricane Katrina: Note the reddest parishes, New Orleans among them, lost between 30% and 80% of their population. Overall Louisiana lost 8% of its total population.

The denial of both suits will have a major impact on the upcoming city election. The state board of elections and the courts have urged a primary election no later than April 29, 2006. Measures to include New Orleans voters dispersed across the country are claimed to be inadequate. In addition, information on candidate and issues is unavailable for the dispersed even if they are able to vote. The population most affected is black, the city now majority white. The results will change the city and its policies for at least the next two years.


April 22, 2006: Primary Election Day in New Orleans.

The election in question, the New Orleans primary, is currently scheduled for April 22, 2006. If you are a Katrina refugee outside of the state, you need to apply for an absentee ballot on your own initiative. You may or may not receive a notice about applying for absentee status from the state, which is using FEMA to conduct a notification through the mail. You will need appropriate identification and your application must be mailed by the March deadline. If you lost your basic identification and have only a Red Cross, FEMA, or other charitable agency ID, you are out of luck. If you are one of the estimated ten thousand first time voters, your luck is not much better. You will need to show up in person to register to vote. You must then vote in person. Once you have done that, you can request an absentee ballot for subsequent elections.


A limited ability to vote further limited by scarce information.

Katrina survivors are living in Houston, Texas; Atlanta, Georgia; and several other large US cities. In order to vote, they need to either return to Orleans Parrish to vote in person or vote by mail. Absentee voting by mail presents some serious complications. Voters outside of New Orleans must obtain an absentee ballot by requesting it themselves. This presumes that they know that there is an election and, further, that they have some understanding of the candidates. The State Attorney General and Secretary of State have plans to contact Katrina evacuees but there is no official plan in place that the public can study.

Information on obtaining absentee ballots is available now on the State of Louisiana web site. The states main page has this notice for those who might be able to access the internet:

State of Louisiana web page references to voting. Note the lack of any banner or Katrina evacuee specific information.

A more direct route to this information can be found on the Secretary of States web page. After three links, prospective voters will see the following.


If you are a registered voter of Louisiana who has been displaced as a result of Hurricane Katrina or Rita, you are still eligible to vote in your home parish if you have not registered to vote in another parish or state.

There are presently three ways to vote in Louisiana: (1) absentee by mail ballot, (2) early voting in person in the Registrar of Voters office six to twelve days before an election, and (3) in person at the polling place on Election Day.

For more information on how to check your current registration status, register to vote, or vote, please contact your home parish Registrar of Voters office or the Louisiana Secretary of State Elections Division by email at or at 1-800-883-2805.

If you register to vote in another parish or state, your voting rights will be affected in your home parish. For more information, please contact your home parish Registrar of Voters or the Secretary of State.

Get complete parish Registrar of Voter address and contact information HERE.

In order to get to this information, the voter must: (a) know it is available; (b) know how to use the internet; (c) have the ability to navigate the various web pages; and (d) do all this by the registration deadline. The process of navigation, while not overly difficult for attentive and experienced applications users, is not exactly user friendly. A real graphical user interface is not apparent. The text is not well placed or highlighted for ease of use. The information is presented in a mater of fact fashion and is dispersed over several different pages within the state site.

Secretary of State Ater was limited in his ability to set up satellite voting outside of the state and his resources to fund public service announcements. Suggestions that absentee ballots be mailed directly to registered voters were set aside as not conforming to Louisiana law.

The following questions arise. How will remote voters learn about the requirement to request an absentee ballot? Will they have the necessary documentation to show that they are registered voters? What will new voters do who are out of town and unable to visit for an applications to vote? Why hasn't the state of Louisiana done more to reach out and track these voters. Where will voters get internet access to access the state internet site? What percentage of evacuees will be able to navigate the rather opaque state web site?


Acting in good faith?

The Louisiana legislature passed Act 40 in a special November 2005 session. The act was to address voting assistance to Katrina survivors around the nation. In essence, it gave Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater some flexibility in voting procedures within Louisiana which could result in satellite voting locations for New Orleans residents displaced within the state. It did not authorize Ater from setting up satellite locations in cities outside the state with heavy Katrina populations.

Act 40 gives Secretary Ater the responsibility to plan for and resolve "the technical, mechanical, or logistical problems impairing the holding of elections with respect to the relocation or consolidation of polling places within the parish, potential shortages of commissioners and absentee commissioners, or shortages of voting machines." "Within the parish" means Orleans parish, the voting area for New Orleans. Such broad power is lacking when it comes to New Orleans evacuees around the nation. They are concentrated in these states: Arkansas, Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas.

In addition, FEMA denied Ater the funding necessary to run public service announcements in these areas, e.g., Houston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, etc. In a statement issued on November 9, 2005, Ater remarked, "I'm disappointed to learn FEMA has again denied our request for funding for public service announcements in areas with high concentrations of evacuees." Ater had lined up celebrities for public service announcements informing Katrina survivors of voting procedures.


Iraqi and Mexican citizens voting in the United States have more rights than Katrina evacuees.

In the 2004 Iraq national elections, Iraqis in the United States had the option of voting at satellite voting facilities in several major cities. This process allowed expatriates, some of whom had not been in Iraq for years, to go to a location, establish their current or former nationality as an Iraqi, and then vote for the candidate of their choice. Several thousand Iraqis living in America, citizens and visitors, took advantage of the opportunity and the voting went off without incident.

Iraqi expatriates residing in the United States had satellite voting locations throughout the country to vote in their 2004 national elections.

In the 2005 Mexican national elections, the Mexican government arranged for similar satellite voting for the several million eligible Mexican voters living in the United States. While less than 16 thousand of the four million eligible voted, Mexican nationals living in the United States received information and had satellite voting facilities available to exercise their right to vote.

Yet the New Orleans evacuees, many of whom lost all of their belongings, are denied even modest special measures to enable their vote.

The New Orleans Superdome sheltered 12 to 15 thousand citizens during Katrina. The roof of the dome is designed to withstand 140 Mph winds. Had Katrina remained a Category 5 hurricane, the winds would have been well in excess of 140 Mph. The roof of the Superdome above is designed to withstand 140 Mph winds. The Superdome, refuge of last resort for those unable to leave (the poor), would have simply blown away.


A new chapter in the ongoing American Revolution: the struggle for voting rights for Katrina survivors.

Louisiana has a long and colorful history. Andrew Jackson led the people of New Orleans against British invaders in 1815. The British had just burned Washington, D.C. and were looking for more opportunities to pillage and humiliate their former subjects. Jackson's army was clearly not a conventional force.

Never has a more polyglot army fought under the Stars and Stripes than did Jackson's force at the Battle of New Orleans. In addition to his regular U.S. Army units, Jackson counted on dandy New Orleans militia, a sizable contingent of black former Haitian slaves fighting as free men of color, Kentucky and Tennessee frontiersmen armed with deadly long rifles and a colorful band of outlaws led by Jean Lafitte, whose men Jackson had once disdained as "hellish banditti." This hodgepodge of 4,000 soldiers, crammed behind narrow fortifications, faced more than twice their number. (The Battle of New Orleans)

Yet the citizens of New Orleans and Jackson prevailed. The victory saved New Orleans, secured the Louisiana Purchase, and gave Americans the satisfaction of decisively defeating the British after their rampage in the nation's capitol.

Today, New Orleans faces a new assault on its long tradition as a unique and special element of American culture and politics. Voters dispersed throughout the United States as a result of Katrina represent a consummate irony and injustice. The planning for a Katrina-like hurricane was woefully inadequate. The poor were left to fend for themselves with churches and civic groups used as a means to distribute "CD's" containing survival instructions and tips. Evacuation of the cities poor was not deemed practical.

The Superdome and Convention Center were to be used as shelters of last resort. Once the hurricane hit, the collapse of the levees was inevitable, due to bad design or building procedures, largely the responsibility of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. The collapse of the levees resulted in mass chaos. No Federal assistance was forthcoming for days thanks to poor planning execution by FEMA.

While citizens starved, became ill, and died, national outrage was tempered with a false picture of looting by New Orleans black community (while similar behavior by whites was called finding food." When citizens tried to leave the horror chamber that had become the cities Convention Center, they went to the Gretna Bridge, a short walk from the center. They were met by armed men from the other side of the Mississippi river who told them they could not enter, even though Gretna had power and supplies. There were no Federal Marshalls there to protect their rights to "life and liberty."

The city was so devastated that a majority of its citizens had to leave their homes, friends, and all of their belongings behind as they were dispersed across the country. Instead of jobs to help rebuild their homes, survivors are forced to adapt to strange locales while friends of the administration like Halliburton win huge contracts in the biggest domestic Federal giveaway ever. FEMA, the author of poor planning and disaster relief, is now the provider for Katrina survivors, an irony that escapes no one.

Evacuees away from home, out of touch, and eager to get back, find Louisiana officials offering them the very least assistance in casting their vote and influencing their future. Rather than a proactive effort to reach all citizens eligible to vote, the states Act 40 makes clear that the Secretary of State has little authority to work beyond the borders of the state or even Orleans parish. FEMA, responsible for much of their distress and pain, offers little in the way of assistance. The voters are alone, away from their homes. Their only support comes from each other and the community organizations who seek relief in courts and through governmental agencies.

The betrayal of New Orleans has been manifested for years through poor planning, poor execution, sloppy workmanship, and negligent oversight of basic safety requirements.

The Federal government provided Louisiana $24 million to fund voting machine purchases in 2004. In that same year, it withdrew $24 million from levee maintenance support in the Federal budget. The de facto and de jure disenfranchisement of New Orleans evacuees is shaping up to be one of the most disgraceful chapters in the history of American governance. The ballot box, the purported solution, is hidden, swathed in absurdist regulations and out of reach for those most in need of access. The denial of voting rights to Katrina evacuees is a denial of their right to self determination. It is a national disgrace.

Who benefits?

New Orleans is the only city in the world where you can hire a jazz marching band for your funeral. Hopefully, there will be no funeral for the voting rights of Katrina survivors.


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