Tuesday, April 18, 2006


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My Day of (trying to) Absentee Vote
Guest Commentary By Lance Hill
April 18, 2006

Feel free to reproduce

I am surprised at how many people responding to my column earlier this week thought the early voter system for the New Orleans Mayor’s election was successful in helping displaced black voters. They were amazed to hear that only 4% of the black registered voters made it to the eleven polls set up around the state to accommodate voters still in exile. I understand their surprise. The main story on the vote outcome was in the New Orleans Times-Picayune's story on April 16 which reported the total number of votes cast in early voting but not in comparison to the total number of registered voters, especially those displaced. What was reported under the subheading “Large Black Turnout,” was Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater’s estimate that 70% of the 10,585 people who cast ballots were black, which translates into 7,409 black votes. That sounds like a lot of votes unless you include what the Times-Picayune omitted: that these were 7,409 voters of out a total of 188,166 eligible black registered voters. Put in this context, the real story was that 96% of the eligible black voters did not show up to the satellite polls and will have to vote absentee or in person.

How Easy is Absentee?

As of today, April 18, if you want to vote absentee you need a computer, internet connection and fax machine, not items that most poor evacuees scooped up along with their children when they evacuated. I decided to cast an absentee ballot since I will be out of town the day of the election. First I had to download the "absentee ballot request form" from the Secretary of State’s site. I filled it out and then had to walk to a local coffee shop to find two strangers willing to sign as witnesses—otherwise I had to pay a notary. Then I had to fax in the request and wait. One problem: there is no fax number on the request form. So I called the 1-(800)-833-2805 which is listed as an information line on the form. I dialed that and got the following: “The toll free number you have dialed in not in service.” Then I called the Secretary of State office at the regular number and they gave me their own fax number and said the toll-free line must not be operating. Then I dialed the Secretary of State fax number at (225) 922-0945. Busy.

Then I called the local voter registrar and they gave me a local number which did work. I am now waiting for them to fax me a ballot. And waiting. When and if it comes I will fax the completed form back to the voter registrar’s office and hope it arrives along with the other tens of thousands of ballots. I can't imagine what displaced people in the Baker, Louisiana FEMA trailer court, with no phones, no computers, no faxes, and no money are going to do.

So how will this affect the black turnout? Secretary of State Al Ater says that since 70% of the people who voted at satellite polls were black, which compares to the current black
registered vote of 65%, so he thinks the satellite system worked and the election will be fair to displaced black voters. Consider his math. First, the fact that only 288 voters out of 100,000 New Orleanians living in Houston cast a vote in Calcasieu Parish, the closest poll to Houston, proves that the system did not work for displaced voters, black or white. People don't like to drive hundreds of miles and spend $100 on gas to vote. I don't even like driving six blocks and standing in line 10 minutes. Secondly, the goal of a fair election is to get black voters outside of New Orleans proportionate to the current displaced voter population, not the former black population or registered voter population. Blacks comprise far more than 65% of the displaced population in most big cities.

Statistically, if you accept that the current population of New Orleans is 150,000 and that it is evenly divided racially, that means there are 240,000 blacks and 50,000 whites still displaced--or roughly five times as many blacks as whites. To be proportionately fair, blacks in displaced communities would have to be voting at rates five times as high as whites and requesting absentee ballots at five times the rate. Based on Ater's numbers, they are showing up at about twice the rate, at best.

Hiding these troubling numbers creates the impression that black voter turnout will be normal, which can lull black voters into a false sense of security. The racial fairness of an election, its success in overcoming obstacles for displaced black voters, can only be measured by reporting the turnout percentages, not simply vote totals. Otherwise we are in for a big surprise. Consider the consequences: If black turnout is as low as 33%, which I think is quite possible, and white turnout is 70%, which is very likely, then whites will outpoll blacks 63,466 to 62,094, even though blacks have twice the registered voters.

With numbers like these, one can make a convincing case that, regardless of intentions, the effect of mail registration and absentee ballots will be similar to the literacy and property qualification tests used to limit black vote in 1898. Given that 40% of African Americans in New Orleans read at the lowest level of literacy, almost identical to the general literacy rate in 1898, it will be extremely difficult for displaced voters to obtain and properly complete the complex mail voter registration and absentee ballot forms. And since 80% of the black community rented before Katrina and little effort has been made to restore rentals, public housing, or move FEMA trailers into the city, home-ownership amounts to the new property test: if you own a home, you are more likely to get to vote.

Lance Hill is Executive Director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University and author of "Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement. He can be reached a Lhill@tulane.edu

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