Big Easy has candidates, ballots ... but voters?

The flooding after hurricane Katrina barely reached the wheels of New Orleans' voting machines. So the machines are recertified and ready to go when residents vote next month. But that's about the only bright spot in what is turning out to be one of the most complicated city elections in modern times.

More than half the voters - some 250,000 of them - are scattered around the country. Elections officials are rushing to get them absentee ballots but many remain hard to reach. Local candidates are having to campaign as far away as Houston and Atlanta to get their message out.

If that weren't enough, civil-rights groups are suing to delay the April 22 election, pointing out that it will probably trim minority participation.

Hurricane Katrina not only flooded this city, it swept away the status quo. It's now possible that this mostly black city could elect its first white mayor in nearly 30 years.

"This is going to be a completely unprecedented election, not just for New Orleans but for the entire country," says Brian Brox, a political scientist at Tulane University in New Orleans. "I don't think anybody has a firm idea of who is going to participate."

For a time, it wasn't even clear when they could participate. Everyone agreed the original date, Feb. 4, was too soon after hurricane Katrina. But finding a new date proved more difficult.

Some state officials - including Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Secretary of State Al Ater - wanted the election held as soon as possible so the city would have leaders in place to oversee rebuilding. But civil-rights groups argued it should be postponed until fall, when more residents would have returned.

There are still ongoing lawsuits to try to delay the April 22 election, but most observers agree it will probably proceed on that date since a federal judge recently refused to delay it.

The next hurdle: where to vote? State officials have set up satellite polling places for residents of New Orleans in 10 cities across Louisiana. But that doesn't help the tens of thousdands in Texas.

Texas ACORN, a community organization of low-income families, sued unsuccessfully to get polling places set up in Texas cities as well. Now, it plans to take three busloads of residents displaced in Houston to Lake Charles, La., to vote April 10, the first day of early voting.

But it's not enough, the group argues. "This is going to be one of the worst elections we've ever seen in terms of voting rights," says Ginny Goldman, the group's head organizer. "There may be a lot of information out there, but none of it's getting to the people."

State officials say they're trying their best.

"This is going to be the most logistically difficult election that you can remember, but we have a made a historical effort to make certain that displaced residents know how to vote," says Secretary Ater. "They need to be able to choose their leaders. We don't want to sit in limbo for two to three years."

His office will spend between $1.5 million and $2 million in public education and outreach. That includes a toll-free telephone number and television spots in eight cities with large numbers of displaced residents such as Atlanta, Houston, and Jackson, Miss.

It has also obtained 736,000 names and addresses of displaced residents - including residents of the parish, not just the city - through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the US Post Office. Packages were mailed to those residents earlier this week, describing the voting procedures.

The state legislature also changed several laws to make the election work. For example, first-time voters can now cast absentee ballots after registering. (Before, first-timers had to vote in person.) Also, poll workers no longer have to be residents of Orleans Parish.

Perhaps even more daunting than the logistics of voting is keeping track of the sheer number of candidates in this election, political analysts say. The mayor's race alone includes 23 candidates; in all, 116 people are vying for 20 city offices.

To reach voters, city council hopeful Marshall Truehill Jr. is writing national religious leaders asking them to announce from pulpits the importance of coming home to vote. He calls it the Crescent City Come Back Home to Vote Campaign.

They should come back to vote, he says, because the absentee process is difficult. An evacuee must request a ballot first, he says. "That process is very cumbersome and I don't think it's going to work.

Other than reaching out to churches, Mr. Truehill has had to rely on word of mouth, the Internet, e-mail, and whatever free advertising he can get. He is planning trips to Atlanta, Houston, and Baton Rouge, La., to talk to evacuees there.

Jane Booth, who is also running for city council, says she's fortunate that so many of her district's residents are back. But "it's hard to raise money," she adds. "So many people are running and they are all trying to tap into the limited resources. Plus, not as many people are willing to reach into their pockets to give this year because everybody's having financial difficulty."

In the last election, only 42 percent of New Orleans voters turned out. Ater says he doesn't want to predict the turnout this year.

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