Some Displaced Voters Have Say, But Legal Fight Expected for Those Who Didn’t
Their journey began at the church where the Rev. Martin Luther King once preached, and it ended at polling places in the shattered city where they once lived.
For four busloads of displaced New Orleans residents, their eight-hour ride from Atlanta was the ultimate _expression of their civil rights — to have a say in how their city is going to be rebuilt after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
“That’s the purpose for coming down here, not to be left out of what’s happening in the city,” says Wellington Lain, 41, who says he has missed only one election since he was old enough to vote. “It makes me feel as if I still belong.”
Mayor Ray Nagin finished ahead of 21 challengers but will face his closest competitor, Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, in a May 20 runoff because no one received more than 50 percent of the vote.
The election was a tricky experiment of modern-day democracy that gave voters scattered by the hurricane a say in this city’s future. Despite the high stakes — the municipal leadership will make key decisions about where and what to rebuild in a city where whole neighborhoods remain uninhabitable — turnout was low, roughly a third of those eligible. Turnout is typically about 40 percent to 45 percent.
“We are facing in New Orleans … a calamity of an election, an embarrassing crisis in contradiction. We fight for democracy in Iraq and there’s an absolute denial of it here in New Orleans today. This election lacks the legitimacy afforded us in the 1965 Voting Right Act,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said Saturday.
Jackson has said he plans to challenge the election outcome in court regardless of the winner, arguing displaced voters were disenfranchised because they weren’t allowed to vote in polling places in such adopted cities as Houston, Dallas and Atlanta.
Of the city’s 297,000 registered voters, tens of thousands are spread out across the United States. More than 20,000 cast ballots early by mail, fax or at satellite voting stations around the state, and thousands more made their way to 76 improvised polling stations.
Lain and his contingent set out Friday night from King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta to vote in Saturday’s election.
“This is the first battle in a serious and important struggle,” Ebenezer’s senior pastor, Raphael G. Warnock, told the travelers before they boarded the buses.
For Silvinia Henry, this is possibly her last time participating in a New Orleans election. The 59-year-old former New Orleans East resident has lived in the city for more than three decades, but says she isn’t sure she’ll be able to return.
“I’ve been living here for so long,” she says. “It was a pleasure for me to come back and give my vote.”
Not all evacuees managed to do that. Dana Young, an 18-year-old college student who transferred to Atlanta’s Spelman College from Dillard University after Katrina struck last fall, thought this was going to be her first election.
However, poll workers turned her away because they couldn’t find a record of her registration.
“I came all the way down here and now I can’t do anything about it,” she says. “They said they couldn’t find me in the system, so I can’t vote.”
— Associated Press
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