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Turnout Steady in 1st Post-Katrina Voting

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20060422/ap_on_re_us/new_orleans_mayor Turnout Steady in 1st Post-Katrina Voting By MICHELLE ROBERTS, Associated Press Writer 11
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 22, 2006
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      http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20060422/ap_on_re_us/new_orleans_mayor

      Turnout Steady in 1st Post-Katrina Voting

      By MICHELLE ROBERTS, Associated Press Writer 11
      minutes ago

      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
      the state.

      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
      Louisiana."

      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,"
      Nagin said.

      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
      Stonecipher.

      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
      black.

      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.
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