NEW ORLEANS – A federal judge refused Friday to postpone the April 22 mayoral election in New Orleans, turning back arguments that not enough has been done to ensure participation by the city's mostly black population dispersed by Hurricane Katrina.
The decision came from U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle, who had earlier pressured state officials to make sure the election was held by the end of April.
"We're extremely disappointed," said attorney Tracie Washington, one of the lawyers working with hurricane victim advocates who argued to either delay the election or force the state to set up "satellite" voting operations out of state.
Secretary of State Al Ater, Louisiana's top election official, said the state has done everything possible to ensure displaced New Orleans residents can vote and that there will be strong participation by black voters.
"I certainly hope there is and I sincerely believe if there's not, it will be by choice and not any barriers," Ater said.
Ater said the state has undertaken a $1.5 million information campaign to inform and educate displaced voters about the process.
At issue was whether laws passed in a recent special legislative session were adequate to protect minority voting rights.
Those laws loosened absentee voting restrictions so that people who have never before voted in person at a precinct can still vote absentee by mail. They also set up voting places at 10 locations around the state for displaced New Orleanians to vote.
Washington said that The Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, and other organizations wanted voting precincts established for New Orleans voters in other states. Ater said that could not be done by April 22.
The dispersal of voters and the question of what percentage of the city's black voters will take part in the election appears to have significantly altered New Orleans politics. The city has not had a white mayor since 1978 but out of about a dozen announced candidates in the current race, only two — incumbent Ray Nagin and minister Tom Watson — are black.
Washington was uncertain Friday whether Lemelle's decision would be appealed.
The election was originally set for February but state officials postponed it after Katrina saying an election could not be held in the devastated city by then. A lawsuit by voters angry about any delay led to Lemelle urging a vote by late April.
While Lemelle's decision leaves the election on track, the U.S. Justice Department still has to clear the recently passed election laws. Ater expressed confidence that the department will approve the laws.