New Orleans' Elections Face Delay

New Orleans' mayoral and city council elections should be postponed for up to eight months because of Hurricane Katrina, the state's top election official recommended Friday.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco has the final say on whether the elections will go forward as scheduled Feb. 4. She was not immediately available for comment but has said she will follow Secretary of State Al Ater's advice.

In his recommendation, Ater said the election should be held by Sept. 30.

The highest profile race set for Feb. 4 is for mayor. Incumbent Ray Nagin, who has gotten both criticism and compliments for his handling of the Katrina disaster, has not formally announced whether he will seek re-election. A Nagin spokeswoman said the mayor had no immediate comment but would likely release a statement on the postponement later Friday.

Races for city council and sheriff are also on the ballot.

Ater said he recommended the delay with regret but noted he could not guarantee that New Orleans would be physically able to set up the infrastructure for an election he called "the most important in that city's life."

"The new administration, the new council, the new people that will be elected, will be in charge of making decisions affecting billions and billions and billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives," Ater said.

Ater laid much of the blame for the delay on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which he said has not provided "a penny" of the $2 million his office requested to to repair voting machines damaged in the storm, which struck Aug. 29, and upgrade New Orleans' absentee voting system.

Ater also said FEMA took until this week to respond to his October request for a list of addresses of Louisiana residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina, so they can be informed of how to vote from out of state.

"Our job would have been a lot easier if FEMA had been more forthright and more forthcoming," Ater said.

Officials expect a huge increase in the number of absentee voters because so many of the city's 273,000 registered voters have moved elsewhere.

Instead of waiting for the money from FEMA, Ater said he has asked Blanco and the Legislature to give him $2 million from the state's budget. He said holding the city elections on Sept. 30 would save the state $3 million, because voting is already scheduled that day on two statewide constitutional amendments.

The city will need to bring in temporary voting buildings and hire dozens of new election workers, on top of problems tracking and communicating with voters and elections workers spread around the country, Ater said.

It's not unusual for hurricanes to cause postponements of elections, at least in the short term.

In Florida, Hurricane Wilma forced a two-week delay in this year's mayoral election in Miami, pushing it back from Nov. 1 to Nov. 15.

After Hurricane Rita hit on Sept. 24, Blanco ordered a delay in elections scheduled for October and early November in several parishes in southwestern Louisiana. New dates were set for late November and December.