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National voters' and civil rights groups focus on New Orleans

By Kat Zambon, electionline.org  Posted by Joan Brunwasser (about the submitter)     Permalink
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by Kat Zambon, electionline.org

Organizations that have been monitoring polling places during Congressional and Presidential contests around the country since 2001 have targeted their efforts on a much smaller contest - municipal elections in New Orleans - that nonetheless hold enormous significance for a devastated community.

After Hurricane Katrina displaced hundreds of thousands of voters, many organizations -- led primarily by the NAACP, People for the American Way, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law - are working together to ensure that those who lost everything to hurricanes do not lose their right to vote.

Jonah Goldman, national campaign for fair elections director at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, explained that in 2005, the groups started organizing their monitoring program by splitting 2006 into two parts - one for the New Orleans elections and one for the general election.

Civil rights organizations have also filed lawsuits challenging several facets of the elections, including the use of satellite polling places. Eddie Hailes, senior attorney for the Advancement Project said that though a lawsuit hasn't been successful to date, the opportunity remains for a ruling in their favor.

"There's so many breakdowns in the [absentee voting] process," Hailes said. For that reason, the Advancement Project has developed an absentee ballot tracking form to document all the steps involved in absentee voting and the problems that occur along the way.

Kirk Clay, director of Electoral College reform for Common Cause, cited the delayed mail system as part of the reason that absentee voting is "going to be extremely difficult . the mail just isn't getting to the proper place." Clay said his organization is also working on "finding a way to promote the early vote in Louisiana . Our goal is to try to get as many people as possible to vote during the pre-vote time."

To help displaced voters around the country, the NAACP has set up 15 voter assistance centers in nine states, as well as a hotline. According to a release, the voter assistance centers "are staffed almost exclusively by NAACP volunteers and Katrina survivors" and "provide assistance to individuals with absentee ballots and voter registration forms," as well as early and in-person voting information. Kim Perkins, NAACP assistant general counsel, said that voters fill out intake forms when they arrive at the centers to help keep track of the different problems voters face.
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Additionally, on April 15, buses will take voters from the NAACP centers in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, Jackson, and Atlanta to satellite polling places in Louisiana to participate in the early voting period. Perkins said more buses will be added if they can identify more voters in different cities who wish to participate. Clay expressed frustrations that - in contrast to displaced Louisianans, Iraqi voters were permitted to use American polling places to participate in their country's elections and compared the journey voters will have to endure on a bus to a poll tax. "On one hand, we are still protesting . on the other hand, we're still doing all we can to promote the vote," he said.

One way Common Cause is working to promote the vote is by holding voter information and empowerment rallies in cities with high evacuee populations. More than 100 people participated in a March rally in Houston, Clay said.

Grassroots tactics used in previous election protection efforts are also being employed. Organizations have been running advertisements targeted to evacuee communities, working with media contacts, and promoting the hotline, as well as knocking on doors, making phone calls, and coordinating church groups, according to Goldman. "It's an incredibly messy and complex process."

Kelly Ceballos, senior communications director for the League of Women Voters, explained that the national organization has been coordinating efforts with state and local groups on the ground in Louisiana. The League of Women Voters in New Orleans has compiled an election guide with candidate information and compiled a list of deadlines and links to help voters.

"People really need to understand that there are new rules and what they are," Ceballos said.
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Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater has also contributed to voter education efforts. Ater's office is sponsoring full-page ads in newspapers in evacuee cities on April 16 that will include a list of polling place changes.

Jennifer Marusak, Ater's confidential assistant, also pointed out a Web site where voters can type in the address where they are registered and learn their polling place. There is also a toll free number voters can call with questions. More than 10,000 absentee voter requests have been received and the Secretary of State's office started mailing ballots at the end of last week, according to Marusak.

"We are prepared to deal with large numbers of voters . We're doing everything we can to cross our t's and dot our i's," she said.

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