We look at how Hurricane Katrina is affecting the political power of New Orleans residents. Upcoming local elections will include a race for mayor with only one black candidate — incumbent Ray Nagin. Lawyers have filed a lawsuit alleging Louisiana’s emergency election plan will disenfranchise thousands of displaced voters, the majority of whom are African-American. [includes rush transcript]
Local elections in New Orleans are set for April. Among other races, voters will cast ballots for mayor. Incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin is facing challenges from more than half a dozen contestants but remains the only black candidate in the race.
Last week, the Advancement Project filed a federal lawsuit challenging election plans for New Orleans, alleging the plan puts too much emphasis on absentee voting and would keep blacks out of office. According to the lawsuit, Louisiana’s emergency election plan following Hurricane Katrina will disenfranchise thousands of displaced voters, the vast majority of whom are African-American, therefore violating the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
- Penda Hair, Co-Director of the Advancement Project and former Director of the Washington, D.C. office of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined on the telephone right now by Penda Hair. She is the Co-Director of the Advancement Project. We welcome you to Democracy Now!
PENDA HAIR: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the situation of voting in New Orleans?
PENDA HAIR: Yes. What we are concerned about is that, after hearing your prior guests, and Bill Quigley happens to be the co-counsel in this lawsuit also, but hearing them describe all of the disasters that New Orleans still faces, we are concerned that the election in April will be just one more disaster on top of everything else. And we are trying to prevent an election where only the predominantly white people who are currently living in New Orleans are allowed to vote. And the African American population, which 80% of the African American population of New Orleans was displaced and is now living in Houston or Dallas or Baton Rouge or other places around the country, will not have a fair opportunity to vote in that election. And our contention is that that would violate the Voting Rights Act, which requires that all the racial groups have an equal opportunity to vote and to elect the candidate of their choice.
AMY GOODMAN: Penda Hair, I wanted to play for you the comments of Alabama Congress member Artur Davis. He spoke recently at a Rainbow/PUSH Wall Street Project event in New York City that was led by Reverend Jesse Jackson. This is Congress member Davis.
REP. ARTUR DAVIS: It is impossible to have a conversation about New Orleans’s future, about Louisiana’s future, in my opinion, without making sure that political participation is insured on the part of people who have been displaced. That’s why we’ve introduced a bill that would give displaced voters from Louisiana the same absentee ballot voter protection, that our soldiers have right now. Right now, if you’re a soldier and you’re in Germany or you’re in Japan or you’re in Afghanistan or Iraq, you’re allowed to vote absentee. Therefore, your political right back home is preserved. We have to do no less for the evacuees, because of this reality.
I remember before we left the press conference upstairs, there were a number of people who were there who are displaced citizens, and all of us hear their frustration every time we talk to them. Reverend Jackson, the main frustration I hear is no one is factoring our voices into the equation. All of these people sitting on the high side of the mountain, talking about "Do we rebuild? Should we rebuild? What do we rebuild?" They’re not asking the folk who live there. They’re the one set of people excluded from the conversation. So that’s the first step. We need to pass a bill giving that right to vote absentee ballot at the federal and state level, the people who have been displaced.
AMY GOODMAN: So where does this federal legislation that’s been introduced by Alabama Congress member Artur Davis, Penda Hair, fit into your lawsuit?
PENDA HAIR: Well, the legislation is pending in Congress. It has not been acted on. There’s no indication that it will be acted on soon, and therefore, it will not be able to assist us in providing a fair election on April 22 in New Orleans, so that’s why we’ve had to go to federal court. The Louisiana legislature has had bills before it this week that would have set up what we call satellite voting centers around the country and also around the state of Louisiana, like this country did for the citizens of Iraq for their recent election. I don’t know if your listeners know, but there were many voting locations for Iraqi citizens who live in the U.S. to vote in the U.S. in our major cities. They didn’t have to fly back to Iraq. But what we’re asking — you know, New Orleans residents who live in Atlanta or Houston or Los Angeles to do is to find transportation to go back to New Orleans on April 22 and vote or either master the complicated absentee ballot process that state law sets up. And neither of those is an equal opportunity with what the people who are living in New Orleans have, which is a convenient local polling place.
AMY GOODMAN: Who are the major obstacles to your demand that people be able to engage in absentee voting that is much more simplified?
PENDA HAIR: Well, first, let me say that the Secretary of State of Louisiana actually supports our proposal, and he has made that proposal to the legislature, so right now, it’s the members of the legislature who have refused to enact legislation that the Louisiana Black Caucus members have brought to them, that the Secretary of State has brought to them. Election experts know that this can be done. In part, we know it can be done because of how it was done for Iraq. And our democracy ought to at least be as convenient for our citizens as we’ve made it for citizens of other countries.
So the lawsuit will go forward, assuming that the legislature doesn’t pass any additional bills before it goes out of session tomorrow. The lawsuit will have a hearing next Thursday, February 23. And we will set forth our evidence, and we have strong hopes that the judge will enter an order soon thereafter that will make Louisiana officials put some fair procedures in place for the African American voters and all voters who are scattered around the country.
AMY GOODMAN: Penda Hair, I want to thank you for being with us, Co-Director of the Advancement Project. She is based in Washington, D.C.