This article was originally published by In These Times.
When Hurricane Katrina came ashore in New Orleans, it destroyed half the city’s voting precincts and scattered 300,000 of the city’s residents, most of them black, across the country. With citywide elections still scheduled in February and March for 20 key public offices – including mayor, criminal sheriff, civil sheriff and all city council members – restoring the city’s democratic capability might seem an urgent task to some, but not to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
All evacuees who apply for assistance must tell FEMA who they are, where they lived before they were displaced and where they live now. Since early October, Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater, a Democrat, has been dogging the agency for the names and temporary addresses of evacuees, so he can send them information about how to maintain their right to vote in Louisiana.
Because many evacuees are far from New Orleans and cannot make a special trip home for the elections, their only way to vote will be by absentee ballot. But, citing privacy concerns, FEMA stonewalled Ater for weeks. They finally reached an agreement on November 8, but it is an open question if the compromise will lead to fair elections.
Ater has also requested $750,000 from FEMA for a Nationwide Voter Outreach and Education Campaign.
“Given the inability of the displaced voters of Louisiana to receive local election information via their local news, some kind of extraordinary outreach should be made to educate those voters,” says David J. Becker, election consultant and former senior trial attorney for the voting section of the U.S. Department of Justice. “Otherwise their voting rights may be yet another victim of Hurricane Katrina.”