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"The Political Repercussions of Hurricane Katrina,"

by Chester Hartman March/April 2006 issue of Poverty & Race

As of this writing (mid-February), the postponed New Orleans elections are scheduled for April 22, with a May 20 run-off if needed—set by Gov. Kathleen Blanco under pressure from a federal judge. The mayor’s office, the entire seven-member city council, and the sheriff and tax assessor’s offices, as well as some possible important voter propositions, all are on the ballot. It will be a very closely watched election, not only for what its results say and portend for the city’s future, but also because of the likely unprecedented (at least for American elections) details of voting procedures, given the vast geographic dispersion of the electorate.

While the population flow back into the city is slow and somewhat unpredictable, in very rough terms only some 200,000 of the 500,000 pre-Katrina New Orleanians will be in the city on April 22. The big questions are who those voters are and how, where and whether they will vote.

Vanilla City?

The first question can be reliably answered, at least in general terms: The city’s white population—about one-third of pre-hurricane New Orleans—suffered far less damage and displacement, and those who had to leave were in a better position to return quickly. Conversely, the two-thirds of the city that was African-American evacuated in far higher proportions and is far less able to return. These people are now scattered in large numbers in such cities as Houston, Jackson and Atlanta, but are all over the map, from Rhode Island to Alaska. To the extent that place affects ability and willingness to vote, the cards are already well stacked. If one adds to those new realities the consistent data that voting rates are higher for whites and for those with higher socioeconomic status, the racial disparity is magnified.

Prior to the hurricanes, New Orleans was one of the most solid centers of black political power in the country. Of the state’s seven Congressional districts, only New Orleans has an African-American majority. Four of the nine African Americans in the State Senate are from New Orleans, as are one-third of the of the State House representatives, and five of the city’s seven city councilors are African-American. If some of the projections/plans for a city with radically changed demographics are realized, the city will have far less representation and power in Baton Rouge, and might even wind up with a population too small to constitute a Congressional district (which in turn could lead to creation of a new majority African-American district elsewhere in the state). Beyond the state, still to be solidified relocation patterns could affect Houston, Atlanta, Jackson and other locales where ex-New Orleanians decide to stay in large numbers.

The Diaspora

The other big question is how, and whether, the far-flung dispersed population—as well as those who will be in New Orleans on Election Day—will vote.

First, consider those who stayed or will have returned to the city. Some 300 of the city’s 442 parish electoral precincts suffered storm damaged. Extensive consolidation into a far fewer number of polling places is mandated. This raises problems of crowding, lines and adequate staffing; people whose lives are still disrupted and full of hassles are not likely to stand around, possibly for hours, waiting to cast their vote. Beyond that is the transportation issue: Consolidation of voting places means longer trips for most voters—trips made very difficult by the city’s still broken public transit system.

In terms of the larger population of displaced people, big questions exist about how and whether they will vote. Never in the nation’s history has there been an election in which so large a portion of the electorate must vote, if they vote at all, by absentee ballot—a system that tests both the will and capacity of the voting mechanism as well as the voter.

One option for those going back and forth to their former homes, but not finally returning to the city, is to vote early in person (assuming the city makes provision for this); a 2005 state law change gives voters that right. Another potentially important option is the fax machine. Louisiana law requires that absentee ballots be received by mail at least four days before the polls close, but it allows ballots to be faxed. Knowledge of this should be widely disseminated, along with practical access to fax machines and, if need be, transmission cost coverage or reimbursement. At the other end, all Registrar office must be equipped with fax receipt capability—funds for which could be made available via the Help Louisiana Vote Fund.

The threshold issue is notification and communication: how to reach these people, how to get them ballots, and how to facilitate their actual voting. FEMA’s proven incompetence includes its inability to assemble a reliable list of evacuees and their mailing addresses, added to which is their refusal to provide the list to candidates. In any case, traditional campaigning is made virtually impossible given the dispersed population, which will certainly reduce turnout. A special state legislature session that just ended created 10 satellite voting centers more accessible to (at least the nearby) displaced New Orleanians, and likely (clarification expected) eliminated a law barring first-time voters from voting by absentee ballot; newly registered voters, however, may not be allowed to vote by absentee ballot or at the satellite voting centers. An additional complication is that, for many evacuees, their residential location is transient, especially those forced to leave hotel rooms previously paid for by FEMA. Where will they go? Will they let FEMA or election officials know their new address? The US mail system is still far from reliable. Aggressive efforts by the media, FEMA, community organizing groups such as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), PICO, the Industrial Areas Foundation and others can and should play a key role. As the President of the League of Women Voters of New Orleans put it in a Nov. 22, 2005 letter in the New York Times: “If they can have elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, we can have them too.”

An unanswerable question is the extent to which there will be voter apathy among those no longer in New Orleans. For some, absence may only increase their fervent desire to return and their understanding of the political importance of the vote in order to achieve that goal. For others, the longer they stay away, the more they may turn cynical and less oriented to their former city and neighborhood. Voter turnout among absentees will be the key determinant of the election outcome, as well as an important signal of future population trends.

Of course, the problem could be ameliorated by universal voter registration, overseen at the national level, as exists in nearly every modern democracy—as suggested by Rob Richie and Ryan O’Donnell of the Center for Voting and Democracy in their Dec. 22, 2005 Washington Post op-ed, “Louisiana’s Electoral Disaster.” That would enable citizens to be registered to vote, no matter where they lived, in an automatic process administered by nonpartisan, independent officials. Even more “radical” would be creation of a Constitutional right to vote, as proposed by American Univ. Law Professor Jamin Raskin and others.

Other ways to facilitate absentee voting include the adaptation of provisions already in place to allow voting by military personnel and overseas citizens—under the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act; extension of the voting period; and making absentee ballots available online and at public locations such as DMV sites, libraries and post offices. Highly exaggerated concerns about fraud are adequately addressed via certification and perjury penalty notices.

Like many other problems that Katrina brought out into the open so forcefully, reforms that are needed to address these issues provide a model for much wider application.

The Big Race

The mayoral race is at the center of attention. Mayor Ray Nagin hasn’t done himself any favors with his “chocolate city” remark or with his reference to the deity. He hasn’t come even close to achieving a Rudy Giuliani-type response to the disaster, which evoked near-universal admiration for the Big Apple’s mayor. Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu announced his candidacy just as this issue was going to press. And while handicapping elections is never a sure thing, the smart money says that, for the first time since 1978, New Orleans may very well have a white mayor. When Landrieu’s family name and connections—son of the city’s last white mayor, brother of the state’s senior US Senator—are added to the new racial makeup of the likely electorate, a white mayor is by far the most likely scenario. This prediction is supported by the popularity of former Mayor Moon Landrieu, as well as Sen. Landrieu and Lt. Gov. Landrieu himself, among black voters. The ex-mayor openly opposed racist David Duke in his election bid; Senator Landrieu co-sponsored the recent Senate apology for not having passed federal anti-lynching legislation (see the September/October Poverty & Race). On top of all of this is the unhappiness expressed by black New Orleanians about the recommendations of Mayor Nagin’s Bring Back New Orleans Commission. Probably the only question is whether Landrieu will win by a majority on April 22 in order to avoid a run-off. (Why anyone would want the job is beyond the scope of this article.)

Run-off elections have their own downsides: Turnout usually falls off, especially among poor and minority voters; the second-round election costs the city a lot of money; and the process of sending out and returning absentee ballots creates additional difficulties. Louisiana law already provides (although only for military and oversees voters) a ranked-choice ballot, whereby if the voter’s top choice is eliminated and does not advance to the run-off, his/her vote goes to the highest-ranked candidate who is in the run-off. (The system, called Instant Runoff Voting, or IRV, already is used in San Francisco, CA, Burlington, VT, and other places.)

As of this writing, it appears that there also could be several propositions on the ballot concerning shifting land-use and financial accountability authority from the city council to bodies appointed by the mayor. Given the racial implications of the likely election results—a city council with an African-American majority and a white mayor—control over these vital elements may become racially coded as well.

Longer-Term Effects on Political Representation

The potential longer-term effects of Katrina on political representation in New Orleans and the State of Louisiana extend beyond the April/May period. The city’s eight-term Congressman, William J. Jefferson, is implicated in bribery charges that, combined with what appears to be significant erosion of his electoral base, could well unseat him in the November general elections. As a senior member of the Ways & Means Committee, Congressman Jefferson wields considerable power, and replacing him would weaken the city’s clout in Washington.

Congressman Jefferson is not the only politician who has cause to worry about the longer-term impacts. Both Governor Blanco (in 2003) and Senator Landrieu (in 2002) won by relatively small margins—margins that were largely, if not totally, due to the African-American vote. A reduced black electorate in the state could significantly endanger their reelection.

An additional, more worrisome longer-term impact is redistricting caused by Katrina-related population shifts. Rebuilding/repopulation will undoubtedly be a protracted process, extending beyond November 2006. Existing Congressional districts (especially New Orleans, but perhaps others in the state, as well as in Alabama and Mississippi) may wind up under-populated, especially if absentee voting procedures are inadequate. Will the “Texas Model” come into play, with a redrawing of Congressional districts in between decennial censuses? One possibility, suggested by civil rights attorney Kristin Clarke-Avery and her late colleague Tulane law professor M. David Gelfand, is postponement of federal elections, possibly throughout the Southeast. While a federal statute states that a uniform date is to be set throughout the country for biennial House elections, a 1982 Federal District Court case (Busbee v. Smith) held that under certain circumstances—for instance, in the case of a “natural disaster”—they can be held at other times. Given the Justice Department’s role in approving voting procedures under Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that may be an avenue to explore.

Katrina, Rita and Wilma had an enormous impact in many areas, not the least of which is on the political front.

Chester Hartman is PRRAC's Director of Research. He is a member of the Long-Range Planning Task Force of Governor Blanco's Louisiana Recovery Authority and co-editor (with Greg Squires) of Routledge's forthcoming volume of essays, There's No Such Thing As a Natural Disaster: Race, Class & Katrina. A variation of this article is appearing in Focus, the magazine of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

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