Addressing Louisiana�s Post-Katrina Electoral Problems
Brewing Election Problems:

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana voters and election administrators will face numerous challenges that threaten to undermine the state’s democratic processes. These issues include:
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency's refusal to allow its records of where Hurricane victims have relocated to be used to send voters notice of upcoming elections,
  • Possible elimination of voters' right to elect a minority candidate of choice,
  • Congressional and state legislative districts of wildly disparate sizes, and
  • Thousands of displaced voters without stable absentee voting addresses.
[FairVote's Report and Recommendations - download .pdf 1.7 MB] NEW!
[1-page summary of report - .pdf 331 KB]
[FairVote Washington Post Op. Ed]
[Louisiana Voter Bill of Rights - download .pdf 83 KB]
[Louisiana Absentee Voter Bill of Rights - download .pdf 168 KB]

FEMA's Unwillingness to Prevent Hurricane Victims from Being Disenfranchised:

Issue Summary: As noted above, thousands of southern Louisiana's voters have been displaced as a result of the hurricanes and flooding, but many of these (near 50%) intend to return to their home cities and retain their original legal domicile. The reality then, is that these voters should be treated as absentee voters for the time being. New Orleans has a February Mayoral election schedule, but right now the only comprehensive source of addresses for the displaced hurricane victims lies with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA, however, has refused to release the names and temporary addresses of evacuees to state officials who are attempting to facilitate voting in upcoming elections. Governor Kathleen Blanco is, in particular, seeking to use FEMA's records to make sure that hurricane victims receive absentee ballots, but FEMA has refused to do so, or to itself forward election information, ballots, or absentee request forms to voters. Such a refusal will effectively disenfranchise most of New Orleans' voters and unduly burden their right to vote.

Solution: FEMA should realize the unique situation that the hurricane victims face and should strive to ensure that they can transition back to normal lives in all respects -- including civic participation. To not do so would unnecessarily allow Hurricane Katrina to disrupt yet another aspect of their lives, without good reason. This, however, raises a larger issue about America's need to rethink its mechanisms for how voter rolls are maintained and how voter registration occurs. Clearly, a greater degree of information-sharing between databases is needed to ensure that voter rolls are clean and error-free and that as many eligible voters as possible can participate in our democratic processes.

In this worst-case-scenario, the point becomes very clear that the only usable address database for these citizens should be used to ensure that they can vote -- but in less obvious, but equally important scenarios, FairVote believes that elections administrators and policymakers must begin to embrace open information flow between state agencies, so that a better voter registration system and database maintenance system can be created. This would, in fact, eventually allow for a system of automatic, universal voter registration that would ensure all eligible voters would be automatically added to voter rolls. For example, information gleaned when students register for school or when citizens obtain drivers licenses could be used to automatically add voters to the voter roll and to update outdated addresses. [More information on Universal Voter Registration]

Disparate District Populations:

Issue Summary: Political experts and pundits have begun speculation that Louisiana may need to redraw legislative districts, given that the post-Katrina migration of residents has created wildly disparate district populations. The central and northern Louisiana congressional districts are now home to tens of thousands of displaced southern Louisiana voters, creating increased constituent demands, and taxing local resources. According to one estimation, the 6th Congressional District (which contains Baton Rouge) likely contains double the usual number of people in House districts. Nevertheless, conducting a short-term census of the state is almost certainly an unfeasible, and costly solution, likely to be fraught with error.

Solution: Ask Congress to amend the federal law requiring single-member congressional districts, and temporarily allow Louisiana to elect its Congressional representatives at-large, statewide using a proportional voting method. (Should residents desire a guarantee of geographic representation, parties could nominate at least one nominee who comes from each of the current congressional districts.) Such a plan would eliminate the “one-person one vote” problems created by the sudden population migration, would comply with the Voting Rights Act, and it would avoid the need to engage in a costly and ineffective mid-decade redistricting. [More information on proportional voting]

Two potential proportional voting methods are already used in the United States:
  • Choice voting - Voters rank candidates in order of choice (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.). Once a voter's first choice is elected or eliminated, excess votes are counted for subsequent choices until all seats are elected. [More information on choice voting]
  • Cumulative voting – voters would vote for up to seven people, and their votes would be evenly distributed among candidates they support. [More information on cumulative voting]

Absentee Voting for Displaced Voters:

Issue Summary: Louisiana uses the ‘Cajun’ primary system for state and federal offices: all voters select from all potential candidates of all parties in the primary election. If a candidate earns a majority of the total votes in that election, that candidate wins. If not, a runoff is held between the top two candidates. Election administrators face a daunting challenge: two elections in a short amount of time. They barely have time to declare the winners of the first election and determine what races will go to a final runoff before they must print the second round ballots with the federal primary and the state runoff. As a result, absentee voters often have too short a time to receive their ballot and mail it back in time to count. With thousands of hurricane victims living without a fixed address, this problem will likely be greatly exacerbated.

Solution: In an effort to ensure full participation from overseas absentee voters, Louisiana sent more than 10,000 ranked choice ballots to overseas voters in 2004, as they have done for many federal and state elections since the early 1990s. This allows absentee voters to rank candidates in order of preference and have their ballot counted in the runoff round for their top-ranked candidate in the runoff - meaning they have an effective vote without the state trying to send a second mailing. Given the recent displacement of hundreds of thousands of voters, this policy should be expanded to include all absentee voters, to ease absentee voting for hurricane victims.

There has been some discussion of New Orleans using an internet voting system to facilitate participation, but these proposals should not be seen as mutually exclusive. Indeed, with the amount of time hurricane victims will need to spend on rebuilding their homes and their lives, needing to show up for one ranked election instead of two will continue to make sense, even when paired with internet voting. [More on Louisiana's use of IRV for absentee voters]

The Winner-Take-All Problem
“Winner-take-all” is a term used to describe single member district and at large election systems that award seats to the highest vote getters without ensuring fair representation for minority groups. In the United States, these are typically single-member district schemes or at-large, block-voting systems. Under winner-take-all rules, a slim majority of voters can control 100% of seats, leaving everyone else effectively without representation. Problems this leads to include:
  • Severe under-representation of women, communities of color, third parties, young people, and major party backers stuck in areas where another party dominates. Winner-take-all election systems do nothing to provide representation to any group making up less than half of the population in a given voting district, and the high percentage of the vote needed to win election can be a severe barrier to minority candidates.
  • Since many areas are dominated by a single political viewpoint, winner-take-all voting systems will often result in no-choice elections where one party has a permanent monopoly on power, and the winner is effectively predetermined. In the United States, two in five state legislative races go uncontested as a result, and nearly 99% of congressional incumbents win reelection by large margins.
  • High percentages of “wasted votes” (that is, votes cast for candidates who do not win). Winner-take-all elections frequently result in more than 50% of votes being wasted. More voters will be represented by someone who they did not help to elect than under any other system.
  • Undervoting. Under at-large systems in particular, voters who feel strongly about a single candidate will be likely to “bullet vote” (that is, use only one of their votes) to help their preferred choice win election. In this way, winner-take-all discourages voters from expressing their full range of political preferences.
  • Decreased voter turnout. With limited choice, and little chance of influencing the outcome of an election under winner-take-all rules, many people will unsurprisingly choose not to participate.
  • Divisive campaigns that fail to address challenging issues and ignore entire constituencies. Under winner-take-all, there is no incentive to reach out to opponents or build cross-party support. Negative campaigning is often a sensible and effective strategy.
Winner-take-all systems are an anachronism in the modern world, as nearly every emerging democracy has rejected their use. They were introduced to America by the British during the colonial era, and are virtually unknown in other developed countries. Their failings lie at the root of many of our current political problems.


Featured Article:
December 22nd 2005
Louisiana's Electoral Disaster
Washington Post

Postponed elections, faulty voter rolls, and FEMA intransigence dilute Louisiana democracy. FairVote's Rob Richie and Ryan O'Donnell make the case for reforms including universal voter registration and ranked choice absentee ballots.