updated 3/27/2006 1:55:51 PM ET 2006-03-27T18:55:51

A federal judge Monday refused to delay New Orleans’ April 22 mayoral election, telling both sides to solve any problems that might hinder displaced residents’ ability to vote.

“I recognize that there is still room for improvement in that electoral process,” U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle said.

Civil rights groups wanted to postpone what would be the city’s first municipal elections since Hurricane Katrina, arguing that too many black residents won’t be able to participate.

The Aug. 29 storm flooded 80 percent of the city, destroying some polling places and scattering more than half the population. What was a mostly black city of nearly half a million people was reduced to well under 200,000 inhabitants.

Some black leaders say the state’s plan to allow mail voting for residents in other states, along with satellite polling places elsewhere in Louisiana, won’t do enough to give all displaced residents the opportunity to vote.

The city elections had been set for Feb. 4, but state officials said they could not possibly hold balloting that soon after Katrina. The postponement led to a lawsuit by residents who wanted no delays, and the state then set the April 22 date. The state’s emergency plan includes polling stations in 10 Louisiana cities, a national advertising campaign, and an easing of voting rules to allow displaced residents to cast ballots.

Mayor Ray Nagin, criticized in some quarters for his response to the hurricane, is running for re-election against nearly two dozen opponents, including Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and Audubon Institute chief executive Ron Forman.

Monday’s hearing was called after the NAACP and other civil rights groups argued the plan contained the equivalent of a poll tax, the voting fee that was banned after it was abused in the South to disenfranchise blacks. They said displaced residents would have to pay for transportation to vote in New Orleans and the expenses would be the “modern equivalent of a poll tax.”

Few absentee ballots requested
Fewer than 10,000 registered voters have requested absentee ballots, said Dale Atkins, who is campaigning for re-election as civil district court clerk.

Other complaints include cumbersome absentee ballot procedures, frequent movement of precinct locations and a refusal to share information about how candidates can reach the displaced voters.

Election procedures in Louisiana and many other Southern states are subject to Justice Department approval because of their history of racial discrimination.

Several black leaders argued Friday for satellite voting locations outside Louisiana, though a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Al Ater, the state’s top election official, said state law doesn’t allow out-of-state voting operations.

“This is a Florida in the making,” said Urban League President Marc Morial, a former New Orleans mayor, referring to Florida’s extensive voting problems in the 2000 elections. “If you see an election train wreck coming, why not do something to prevent it before the wreck occurs?”

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