Turnout Steady in 1st Post-Katrina Voting
By MICHELLE ROBERTS, Associated Press Writer 11
NEW ORLEANS - A steady stream of voters, some from
storm-scarred neighborhoods and others by the busload
from evacuee havens across the nation, cast their
first ballots since Hurricane Katrina in a crucial
election Saturday to decide who oversees how their
city is rebuilt.
Incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin predicted he would lead the
field, but he faced 21 challengers, including the
state's lieutenant governor. If none gets more than 50
percent, a runoff between the top two vote-getters
will be held May 20.
Because of the Aug. 29 storm, what ordinarily would be
a routine municipal race has become an unprecedented
experiment in democracy: Of the city's 297,000
registered voters, more than 20,000 cast ballots early
by mail, fax or at satellite voting stations around
Turnout figures would not be available for hours, but
Secretary of State Al Ater said steady streams of
voters were moving in and out of polling places he
visited Saturday morning. He said there was no way to
measure whether turnout was light or heavy because the
election was so unusual.
Several hundred people traveled from Atlanta to New
Orleans on buses provided by the Rev. Martin Luther
King Jr.'s former church, Ebenezer Baptist Church.
"We're still citizens of New Orleans," said J. Todd
Smith, 24, who made the trip from Atlanta. "We still
want to know what's going on there. I still have my
driver's license. My license plate still says
The line was already 80 voters deep when the polls
opened Saturday at the University of New Orleans. The
enormity of the task facing the city's leadership
weighed heavily on Rosalie Ramm, 52, who was in line
shortly after 6 a.m.
"It feels like a lot of responsibility," she said. "I
don't take it lightly."
Nagin, who cast his ballot during an early-voting
period more than a week ago, arrived at the polling
place in his neighborhood Saturday to accompany his
wife, Seletha, as she voted.
He noted that another hurricane season is rapidly
approaching and said there's no time for a transition
of administrations. "We don't have a year to wait,"
The winner of the mayoral and city council races will
face a host of politically sticky and racially charged
decisions about where and what to rebuild in a city
where whole neighborhoods remain uninhabitable.
Four-fifths of the city was flooded, and large parts
of New Orleans are still woeful tracts of ruin.
Rebuilding plans and the federal money to pay for
them are being debated. Nearly all the public
schools remain closed, and the tourism business, long
the economy's mainstay, has drawn few conventions.
The election "is hugely important. I'm not one to fall
into hyperbole, but for New Orleans and Louisiana and
potentially even the country, as a whole, it's
critically important," said political analyst Elliott
The election, which includes seven City Council seats
and other local offices, was originally scheduled to
take place Feb. 4 but was postponed because of the
damage and dislocation caused by Katrina.
Ater said he's confident that election officials, who
have fielded thousands of calls from voters on where
to vote, have done what they can to educate voters.
But not all evacuees who returned to New Orleans
Saturday were able to cast ballots. Dana Young, an
18-year-old college freshman, transferred to Spelman
College in Atlanta from Dillard University after
Hurricane Katrina struck last fall.
Poll workers told her they had no record of her
registration. Young said she had a voter registration
card but lost it along with her birth certificate
during the hurricane.
"I'm really upset," she said as tears welled up in her
eyes. "I came all the way down here and now I can't do
anything about it. They said they couldn't find me in
the system, so I can't vote."
The turnout is being closely watched by civil rights
groups, which have questioned whether the election in
a city that once was two-thirds black will be fair
with so many black voters scattered around the
country. Of the early ballots, about two-thirds were
cast by black voters, but analysts caution that the
numbers may not be reflective of overall turnout.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said civil rights activists
would challenge the election outcome in court
regardless of the winner. He said the election
violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act because all the
complications of displaced voters were not addressed.
"The Voting Rights Act itself is in jeopardy for lack
of enforcement," said Jackson in New Orleans.
Less than half the city's pre-Katrina population of
455,000 have returned. As a result, candidates have
had to travel to cities like Atlanta and Houston,
where many evacuees live, to get their message out.
Many of those remain scattered outside the city are
Pre-election polls have offered little guidance
because they account only for residents with home
phones in New Orleans a minority of potential
voters. But most observers believe Nagin, who is
black, will advance to the runoff against Louisiana
Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu or executive Ron Forman. Both
challengers are white. The city has not had a white
mayor in nearly three decades, when Landrieu's father,
Moon Landrieu was mayor.
Nagin has sought to paint himself as the leader who
stayed behind in a city overwhelmed by catastrophe.
Landrieu and Forman, a nonprofit executive who turned
the zoo around, have been hesitant to openly criticize
Nagin's leadership. Both, however, argue the city
needs someone new for the unprecedented rebuilding.
"The next mayor has got to be able to unite the city
and get the job done," Landrieu said Saturday.
Four other candidates, considered among the second
tier, appeared during a nationally televised debate
Monday: corporate lawyer Virginia Boulet, businessman
Rob Couhig, the Rev. Tom Watson and former City
Councilwoman Peggy Wilson. Twenty-three names are on
the ballot for mayor, but one candidate withdrew.
Associated Press Writers Errin Haines, Brett Martel
and Hank Ackerman contributed to this report.