New Orleans election

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After my talk, I had a chance to talk with the secretary of state of Louisiana, Al Ater, a Democrat. Here is how he said his state is handling the difficult question of how to conduct city elections in New Orleans. Under the authority of an existing state law, he recommended and Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco agreed to postpone the New Orleans city election from February to April. This seems pretty straightforward and reasonable.

Then the question arises: Who is entitled to vote? Most pre-Katrina residents of New Orleans are unavoidably outside the city. Yet many intend to return. In election law, residency is a matter not just of physical presence but of intention: I may be outside the District of Columbia on Election Day (as I was in 2004, so that I could be at Fox News headquarters in New York), but if I consider myself a resident of D.C., have qualified as an eligible voter, and intend to return to live in the District, I can vote absentee. Which I did, uncontroversially.

By that principle, residents of Orleans Parish (which is coterminous with the city of New Orleans) who are unavoidably absent but intend to return should be eligible to vote in the city election in April. What Ater intends to do, controversially, is not just to allow such absentee voting by mail but to set up absentee voting stations in Houston and other places where large numbers of New Orleanians are currently living and allow them to vote there. He tells me that Republicans in the Legislature oppose this procedure. But he argues that it provides a better way to allow people to vote in a way that prevents election fraud than absentee voting by mail. An absentee vote is verified by the voter's signature. But the out-of-state voting stations would verify voters' status by requiring, under existing Louisiana law, official voter identification. In the case of the very few people who do not have such identification, they would be able to vote by signing an affidavit that would include identifying questions (e.g., your mother's maiden name), the answers to which are known to election authorities. Ater adds that he had sent out blast e-mails to election authorities in jurisdictions where, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, residents of New Orleans are currently living, asking them to identify people from Louisiana who have registered to vote there. He says that some 5,000 such people have been identified and have been stricken from the Louisiana voting rolls.

I can readily see arguments for and against this procedure, but it seems to be at least one reasonable way to conduct an election in such unusual circumstances. I should add that, according to Ater, of the people displaced from New Orleans, about 57 percent are black and 43 percent white. Since the pre-Katrina population of New Orleans was about 2-to-1 black, that means that a higher proportion of whites than of blacks has been displaced. Contrary to the news coverage at the time of the hurricane, heavily white neighborhoods like Lakeview and Gentilly as well as heavily black neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward were literally devastated when the 17th Street and Industrial Canal levees broke. Lakeview, in fact, is the one significant part of the city that voted for George W. Bush. And Lakeview is likely to see more rebuilding than the Lower Ninth Ward, where real property was virtually worthless pre-Katrina.

Louisiana state government and Louisiana state officials have taken a lot of flak for their actions in response to Katrina and over the years. But it strikes me that Louisiana officials, including Al Ater and including those Republicans who oppose the out-of-state polling places, deserve credit for trying to handle an unprecedented and difficult problem in a responsible and fair way, whether one agrees or disagrees on particular aspects of their approach. One cannot know at this point how many New Orleanians who say they intend to return really so intend and will eventually ever do so. But it seems unfair to disenfranchise people who have had to leave their homes and home city for reasons entirely beyond their control.