Louisiana's Electoral Disaster

By Rob Richie and Ryan O'Donnell
Published December 22nd 2005 in Washington Post

When Hurricane Katrina broke the levees in New Orleans, it did more than create a wave of evacuees fleeing the city. Democracy itself is now a disaster area. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco has postponed city elections indefinitely, thereby extending the term of the city's mayor by executive decree. Meanwhile, bureaucratic squabbling and flawed voting mechanics threaten to bar tens of thousands of people from future elections.

The governor's decision to postpone New Orleans's February voting is grounded in genuine problems with the city's ability to run elections. But presidential elections weren't delayed during the Civil War, and Iraq managed to run its elections in the midst of an insurgency. Postponing elections sets a dangerous precedent -- one that could justify a president's extending his or her term in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

With more national investment in our electoral infrastructure and smart planning, New Orleans could have held its elections on time. As it is, the city and state still may fail to run fair elections whenever they are held. But we're not seeing any commissions formed to study how Louisiana came to fail its voters by not adequately preparing its democracy infrastructure. This is no surprise, since most other states suffer from the same lack of preparedness.

The city's most obvious problems are establishing who can vote and making it easy for them to participate. New Orleans needs to get absentee ballots to its many registered voters who are displaced, but only the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a relatively comprehensive list of new addresses. Citing privacy concerns, FEMA refused to share that list and later decided it was too costly to notify people about their voting rights. Just this week, under threat of a lawsuit, it agreed to pass the list on to the state. Louisiana now plans to send notices about how to apply for a mail-in ballot to those already registered, but the onus remains on displaced residents to register and apply for a mail-in ballot.

This undemocratic bungle is a symptom of a larger national problem. Right now we manage our voter rolls poorly. Thousands of counties handle voter registration themselves, all separate and often unequal. The result is incomplete and error-ridden records, with nearly a third of eligible voters left off the rolls and many more registered twice or with old addresses. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 did not go nearly far enough in addressing this problem, and the recent calls by Jimmy Carter and James Baker for dramatically boosting voter registration have generally been ignored.

What we need is universal registration, overseen at the national level, as it is in nearly every other modern democracy. Voters should be registered no matter where they live, and the process should be automatic, administered by nonpartisan, truly independent officials. All eligible citizens should be entered into a nationwide voter database with complete and accurate records and safeguards to respect privacy concerns. If that were the case, FEMA would have made its records available to voter registration administrators, and it would have been far easier for displaced voters to participate by mail in a February election in New Orleans.

Absentee ballots in New Orleans should also be designed to accommodate its runoff elections. Like many cities, New Orleans uses runoffs whereby the top two finishers compete in a decisive second election if no one gets a majority of the vote. For absentee voters, this means that a whole new round of runoff ballots must be designed, mailed and returned -- quickly. In this expensive process, administrators have little time to mail out absentee ballots, and voters have little time to return them.

Louisiana has been a national leader in solving this problem for its military and overseas voters in congressional runoffs. Because there is seldom enough time to print new ballots, send them to far-flung locations such as Afghanistan or Iraq, and get them back in time for runoffs, Louisiana (and, as of next year, Arkansas) provides a ranked-choice ballot.

Recipients rank candidates by first choice, second and so on. If their top choice is eliminated and doesn't advance to the runoff, their vote counts for their highest-ranked candidate who is in the runoff. Hurricane refugees deserve a similar ballot to protect their right to vote.

As New Orleans rebuilds, involving all the people in the decisions of their government is of greatest importance. And nationally, we must act to ensure that democracy is never a victim of terrorism and natural disasters.

Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote -- The Center for Voting and Democracy (http://www.fairvote.org). Ryan O'Donnell is its communications director.
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