Big get-out-the-vote effort for Big Easy

Evacuees could tip the balance of the mayoral election if enough trek to polls and cast absentee ballots.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Deborah Gaines, whose home in New Orleans East stood in 9-1/2 feet of water for three weeks after Katrina, has just finished voting in the Crescent City's primary election.

She drove from Houston to Lake Charles, La., with newly made friends to cast her ballot in what many are calling the most unique - and most important - election in New Orleans history.

Ms. Gaines typically votes, she says, but this year was special. "We are not going to be forgotten," she said Thursday, proudly wearing her "just voted" sticker. "We may be evacuees, but we are still citizens, and we have that right."

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Gaines and her group cast their ballots for mayor at one of 10 satellite polling places set up around Louisiana to serve New Orleans evacuees - one of many changes made to accommodate residents who are not yet home. By using buses, absentee ballots, and other measures, election officials hope to make it possible for the New Orleans diaspora - at least half of the city's residents - to vote by Saturday.

The challenge of holding an election while the city is still recovering has led to the biggest get-out-the-vote effort in decades, say voting-rights advocates.

"We are trying to make sure that those who have been dislocated and neglected reclaim their rightful voice in the process," says Renee Wizig-Barrios, organizer of The Metropolitan Organization (TMO) in Houston.

The local group, in coordination with the national Industrial Areas Foundation, is working to sign up 10,000 absentee voters in Houston. The national goal is 35,000 by May 20, when New Orleans residents are expected to vote again in a runoff between the top two vote-getters.

A surge in requests for absentee ballots

So far, the Louisiana secretary of State's office has received a record number of requests for absentee ballots for this election - almost 15,000. Usually, there are about 1,500 per election.

TMO has signed up 2,500 in Houston already - many of them first-time voters. A lot of the legwork is being done by feisty volunteers like Linda Jeffers, a former New Orleans resident herself. She's at a north Houston apartment complex rounding up New Orleans evacuees to talk about the importance of voting and other relevant issues.

"Are you gonna vote?" she asks an evacuee she stops. "If we don't ... let them know we have a voice, they are not going to respond to us. Otherwise, we are going to be stuck like chuck. And I'm ready to go home. How about you?"

Ethelynn Marshall is one of those signing up to vote in the election by absentee ballot. Evacuees have until Tuesday to request a ballot and until Friday to postmark it.

The hurricane destroyed her home in the lower Ninth Ward and she has been in Houston ever since. She worked at Charity Hospital for 13 years and understands the desperate need for hospital workers in New Orleans right now, but she can't find a place to live back home.

When thinking about whom to vote for (she's decided on incumbent Mayor C. Ray Nagin), Ms. Marshall says the No. 1 issue on her mind is housing. "I'm leaning toward staying here or going to California to work," she says, "so New Orleans better get it together if they want me back."

Jarrod Short is also signing up to vote absentee. He understands Marshall's sentiment and says about half the evacuees he knows are not planning to return. "A lot of people are not really concerned about the election because they are not trying to go back," he says. "They are simply going to stay here and stick it out."

Early signs are that most evacuees who have requested absentee ballots are sending them back. As of the weekend, 10,585 ballots had been returned.

Evacuee power

"Evacuees could potentially tip the balance of the election," says Susan Howell, director of the Survey Research Center at the University of New Orleans.

To make that happen, the Houston chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) is another group committed to getting people to the polls - whether in person or by mail. In conjunction with the Katrina Survivors Association of Houston, it intends to help 4,000 people vote and took large bus loads to Lake Charles on several days last week.

Dorothy Stukes, association chairwoman, rode along and said everyone on board was African-American - a group that typically votes in low numbers in New Orleans.

"The secretary of state said a lot of African-Americans don't usually show up to vote," says Ms. Stukes, who already voted by absentee ballot. "Well, we wanted to let him know that, even though he put all those obstructions in our way, we were going to show up and be counted."

With so many candidates on the ballot (23 for mayor) and being so far away, evacuees say it's hard to get the information to make the right choices. Several events in Houston - a mayoral debate and, later, a video link to another mayoral forum - tried to fill that void.

But Janice Franklin and her husband, Henry, got most of their candidate information from the Internet and word of mouth.

"The whole process has been frustrating," says Ms. Franklin, who voted in Lake Charles after driving 2-1/2 hours from Houston. "But we were determined to vote."

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