In January 2006, FairVote released a groundbreaking study of Hurricane Katrina’s effect on voting populations, minority voting rights, district fairness and the potential partisan balance of southern Louisiana’s U.S. House delegation. FairVote drew attention to “Louisiana’s Electoral Disaster” with their December 2005 oped in the Washington Post and New Orleans Times-Picayune.
FairVote analysts are tracking these aspects of the New Orleans municipal elections:
- Impact of two-round runoff system on majority rule and inclusion of votes of absentee voters
- Impact population displacement on city council district representation
- Capacity of election administration system to generate reasonable number of valid absentee ballots
FairVote Research Associate R. Edward Griffin said, “Katrina raised red flags over more than Louisiana’s levee system. It highlighted the need for preparedness and flexible electoral infrastructure – a voting system that can accommodate mass population displacement.”
New Orleans has a mayor-council form of government. Both are elected every four years. Five council members are elected from districts, and two are elected at large. There is no nomination process; all candidates of all parties run on the same ballot.
If no candidate receives a majority of votes in the first round (called a “cajun primary”), the top two candidates (regardless of party affiliation) face each other in a May 20 runoff round. In 2006, the large 24-candidate field could mean an otherwise strong candidate does not proceed to the runoff. Because the vast majority of candidates are of the same party, a low-polling contender on the other side could enter the runoff.
The current make-up of the council is five Democrats and one Republican who won a district seat in 2002 when no Democrat ran for that office. Additionally, of the seven councilmembers, roughly one-third are African American. Members representing districts are limited to two terms.
SPECIAL PROVISIONS POST-KATRINA
Election administrators made special provisions for early and absentee voting by displaced hurricane victims.
Polling stations: Election officials formerly counted ballots in 441 precincts. Because the storm damaged voting equipment and polling locations, administrators have consolidated many stations and relocated others. They also have set up satellite stations in nine parishes across southern Louisiana, where victims evacuated along Interstate 10.
Early voting: Voters could cast ballots on April 13 and 15, a week in advance of the election, in registrar of voters offices in New Orleans and at satellite locations across Louisiana. Civil rights groups even bussed hundreds into Louisiana from Texas and other evacuee hotspots.
Absentee voting: State officials made an exception for displaced, first-time voters, permitting them to cast absentee ballots in this election. Under normal circumstances, state law required one to vote in person when voting for the first time. Currently, over 16,000 voters have requested absentee ballots, with over 37% of the requests coming from Texas and 23% coming from voters who have moved from one part of Louisiana to another. The total turnout in 2002 was well over 115,000, meaning that if turnout decreases as expected, absentee voters will make up an unprecedented percentage of the total voting population.
KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR...
Absentee voters disenfranchised in the runoff round: The combination of runoff elections and an unprecedented number of absentee voters means many voters could be disenfranchised in the runoff round. In the 2002 election, both the District A and mayoral races went to runoffs. Because the second round occurs a month after the first, administrators have three weeks to figure out which candidates will be on the second round ballot, print new ballots, and then mail them to about 17,000 absentee ballots from voters around the country. Voters have even less time to return them.
Unprecedented low turnout and people voting absentee from within New Orleans: Hurricane Katrina drained population from parts of Orleans parish. Low turnout in some precincts, especially those in the Ninth Ward, will indirectly indicate how few voters remain in certain districts, particularly District E. Districts of disparate populations mean (1) a vote in one part of town is worth more than a vote in another, (2) that groups consequently will be over- and under-represented and (3) that some councilmembers will be overburdened with constituent service requests. Some districts are swollen, and the number of absentee ballots cast from them will indirectly indicate roughly how much.
Majority black city electing white and/or Republican mayor: According to the Secretary of State's office, 67% of voters currently on the New Orleans rolls are African American, helping to explain why two African American candidates faced off in the 2002 runoff election. But seven of 22 candidates are African-American, while numerous African-Americans have yet to return to New Orleans. If remaining black voters split their support, they could force the frontrunning black candidate into a runoff against one of two white, Republican candidates. In other words, institutional barriers to voting and population displacement would compound the “spoiler” problem. Alternatively, there stands a great chance that black voters crossover and vote for a white Democratic candidate, such as Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu, giving New Orleans its first white mayor in decades.
FairVote’s Program Director, David Moon said, “This will be an extremely difficult election to administer, and if things go well, congratulations will be in order. But the results must be watched closely to avoid pitfalls in the upcoming November 2006 Congressional elections.”