Displaced New Orleans Residents Travel Home to Vote in La. Elections

Hundreds of displaced New Orleanians living in Atlanta will trek through the night and across four states to be among those casting their ballots in the Louisiana primary elections Saturday.

The evacuees' journey is the idea of two Atlanta-based pastors, including the head of a megachurch formerly based in The Crescent City that was forced to relocate after Hurricane Katrina. The Freedom Caravan will leave from historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spiritual home of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Even if our effort in the end turns out to be more symbolic in terms of the impact on the election, I think that's still an important symbolism," said Ebenezer's senior pastor, Raphael G. Warnock, one of the trip's organizers.

Warnock got the idea for the Freedom Caravan while in New Orleans on April 1 speaking at a march and rally organized by the Rev. Jesse Jackson to rebuild New Orleans and protest the upcoming elections. Warnock said he realized then that the elections were likely inevitable, and focused his attention on how to proceed.

"The logical next step was to get as many voters from Atlanta to New Orleans as possible," Warnock said.

Standing beside him was Bishop Paul Morton, who recently opened Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta. Warnock introduced himself, and the two agreed to partner on the effort. About 100 members of Ebenezer have pitched in to help, Warnock said.

Some evacuees have already made the trip to New Orleans to vote early. Kelly Jones, who was one of about 16 people to travel on Monday with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, said this is a critical time in the history of her hometown.

"With the position of the city right now, it's necessary that we get out there and try to put the right people in the right spots," said the 29-year-old former resident of the 7th Ward, now living in Atlanta and serving as an advocate for other evacuees.

"It was important. I want to believe votes count, so that's why I went. I just had to give it that effort," she said.

Although she wasn't sure if she would even be able to vote, Jones said she was able to cast a ballot. She said she has spoken to other evacuees in Atlanta who have voted absentee, and said it was unfair that voting was not made more convenient for New Orleanians scattered across the country.

"It probably has something to do with the plan of the city," Jones said.

"They know a lot of the people who can't afford to get around very much are the people who would sway the vote in a direction they don't want it," she said. "That happens all the time, where the disadvantaged are basically ignored."

Evacuees like Jones and those riding on buses to New Orleans Friday night are sure to be a rarity, with many not in a position to go back to the city to cast a ballot, said David Bositis, senior researcher with the Washington, D.C.-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

"It really is unclear what's going to happen," Bositis said.

"They're short on money, they're adjusting to living in places where they didn't live before. There are people living in trailers, with limited or no transportation," for whom voting is not a top priority, he said.

The extent to which evacuees are able to vote will determine the effect they are able to have, but at the least, Bositis said, their vote is one of the few ways evacuees will have to make a statement.

"This is an unprecedented situation," he said of the election. "It could be inspiring, or it could be depressing."