WASHINGTON – Displaced New Orleans residents deserve the same voting privileges as the people of war-torn Iraq, several black leaders argued Friday in pushing for satellite voting from locations outside Louisiana.
"We are seeing people from Iraq being treated better than people from New Orleans," said Al Sharpton, who joined Jesse Jackson, NAACP President Bruce Gordon, Urban League President Marc Morial and several other influential black leaders in calling for steps to improve participation in New Orleans' April 22 elections.
Hurricane Katrina displaced more than 200,000 New Orleans residents of voting age, many of them black voters, and the black leaders argued that city elections could violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
"This is a Florida in the making," said Morial, a former New Orleans mayor, referring to Florida's extensive voting problems in the 2000 elections. "If you see an election train wreck coming, why not do something to prevent it before the wreck occurs?"
A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Al Ater, the state's top election official, said out-of-state voting operations are not legal under Louisiana law.
The city's election plan was approved by the Justice Department last week.
Complaints about the plan included inadequate voting options for thousands of displaced New Orleans residents, cumbersome absentee ballot procedures, frequent movement of precinct locations and a refusal to share information about how candidates can reach displaced voters.
The groups protesting the election are calling for an April 1 march on New Orleans to protest elections they claim could sharply erode one of the most important federal civil rights laws.
The New Orleans' election was postponed from its original Feb. 4 date when state officials said they could not organize it in time, given the destruction of polling places and dispersal of voters caused by Katrina.
Justice Department Spokesman Eric Holland said the Louisiana legislative black caucus has endorsed the plan. However, several members of the caucus voted against it, and state Sen. Cleo Fields, a prominent member of the caucus, is a leader in the effort to delay the election.
The decision not to share the contact information for displaced New Orleans voters was not the choice of the secretary of state, said his spokeswoman Jennifer Marusak.
The state was ordered by federal officials not to share the Federal Emergency Management Agency's list of displaced New Orleans residents to protect their privacy, she said.
Jackson has called for Gov. Kathleen Blanco to postpone the election to allow a fairer election plan.
State officials have worked out a plan for the election and are doing their best to contact displaced voters, said Blanco's spokeswoman Denise Bottcher, adding: "We are going forward."