A federal judge turned back efforts Monday to delay New Orleans' planned April 22 election for mayor and other city offices, but told lawyers on both sides of the case to identify and solve any problems that might hinder displaced residents' ability to vote.
"I recognize that there is still room for improvement in that electoral process," U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle said.
Civil rights groups had returned to federal court in hopes of blocking what would be the city's first municipal elections since Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29. The storm flooded 80 percent of the city, destroying some polling places and scattering more than half the population around the state and nation.
Some black leaders say the state's plan to allow mail voting for residents around the nation, along with early voting at "satellite" polling places in the state does not do enough to provide all displaced residents — most of them black — with the opportunity to vote.
Attorney Bill Quigley, on the side of those who want a delay, likened the election to a train wreck. "We can see that train wreck coming in slow motion," Quigley said.
Al Ater, the secretary of state, said he looked forward to working with the plaintiffs and keeping Lemelle abreast of developments.
"I'm very proud to keep him (Lemelle) updated," Ater said. "I'm very proud of what we're doing."
The city elections had been set for Feb. 4, but state officials said they could not possibly hold balloting that soon after Katrina. The postponement led to a lawsuit filed by some residents who wanted no delays. Lemelle never ordered an election date but made it clear to state officials he wanted an election by late April. State officials then set the April 22 date.
The election has turned into a test of the city's, and the nation's, ability to hold an election in the midst of rebuilding a major city with more than half of the population displaced. The vote also could help determine the city's rebuilding plan.
Mayor Ray Nagin, who has been criticized in some quarters for his response to the hurricane, is running for re-election in New Orleans, which was a mostly black city of nearly half a million people before Katrina reduced it to well under 200,000 inhabitants.
The state is implementing an emergency election plan that includes polling stations set up in 10 Louisiana cities, a national advertising campaign to inform displaced voters, and an easing of voting rules to allow displaced residents to cast ballots.
But civil rights groups have come out harshly against the plan, alleging that it does not do enough to reach out to displaced black voters, and prominent leaders like the Rev. Jesse Jackson have seized on the issue.
The latest hearing was called after the NAACP and other civil rights groups stated that hidden in the election plan was the equivalent of a poll tax — a voting fee that was banned after it was abused in the South to disenfranchise blacks.
They say that many first-time voters are likely displaced and would have to pay for transportation to vote in New Orleans. The travel expenses, their pleading reads, are the "modern equivalent of a poll tax and would result in outright vote denial."
Other complaints include 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 the displaced voters.
Several black leaders argued Friday for satellite voting locations outside Louisiana. "We are seeing people from Iraq being treated better than people from New Orleans," the Rev. Al Sharpton said.
"This is a Florida in the making," said Urban League President Marc 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?"