Alex Brandon  /  AP
Would-be voters lined up in New Orleans City Hall in late March, trying to beat the deadline to register for the April 22 mayoral election.
By NBC Political Unit
NBC News
updated 4/12/2006 4:29:03 PM ET 2006-04-12T20:29:03

Today, nearly two weeks before the official election day, the first votes will be cast in New Orleans' unprecedented mayoral contest, which is taking place among an electorate that is dispersed around the country.

Voters meeting certain qualifications can cast their ballot for one of more than 20 candidates at a select early voting precinct set up around Louisiana.

At the moment, there's a lull in the legal challenges posed by civil rights groups which have sought to postpone the April 22 election, arguing that the voting process is unfair to minorities.

These groups and state officials are now focused on providing information and absentee ballots to thousands of Hurricane Katrina evacuees who want to vote. But with all the attention paid to the process leading up to the election, little has been paid to what will happen once the ballots have been cast -- or in thousands of cases, stamped, sealed and delivered.

Angie LaPlace, commissioner of elections for the state of Louisiana, lays out the steps.

Counting the votes
After the early voting and absentee ballots have been collected on election day, officials will begin counting them, as prescribed by law, at 2:00 p.m. ET on April 22. The process is expected to take about seven hours to complete. By that time -- around 9:00 p.m. ET -- polls around the state will have closed and precinct results will start rolling in.

LaPlace says they could have a final vote tally by 11:00 p.m. ET at the earliest and probably around 1:00 am ET on April 23 at the latest. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held on May 20.

But with all the pre-election day charges of unfairness, post-election day challenges seem likely.

Civil rights groups have been charging for weeks that the lack of out-of-state polling places could disenfranchise minorities and the poor who may not be able to travel the long distances required to vote in person, or force them to rely on the city's crippled postal system to cast absentee ballots.

Chris Wartelle, public information officer for the Louisiana Department of Justice, says the office will tackle lawsuits and fraud complaints on a case-by-case basis. "'[We'll] take those things as they come."

Legal challenges
According to LaPlace, anyone wanting to challenge the veracity of the results has nine days to file a lawsuit, after which the court must respond within four days. Any litigation will have to be addressed within one week of filing, LaPlace explains, hopefully leaving enough time for everything to be resolved in time for the possible runoff.

Wartelle adds that complaints of fraud, however, can be filed at any time after the election. The state's justice department will then attempt to resolve those cases in a timely manner. In the meantime, there will be plenty of observers on the ground.

The Louisiana Justice Department and Secretary of State's office both say they'll have teams monitoring the elections, and the Election Assistance Commission says they'll have at least two commissioners present to observe early voting.

Some civil rights groups are now focusing their efforts on getting voters to the polls. John White, a spokesman for the NAACP, says they're working with several other organizations to set up 14 voter assistance centers across the Gulf Coast region. The centers will serve as information hubs for evacuees to provide them with voting rights information and help them fill out their absentee ballots. White says they're also considering transporting voters now residing in other states to Louisiana to vote.

Turnout concerns
But the big question remains, just how many evacuees will end up voting? Many surmise that evacuees have settled elsewhere and have little interest in the politics of a city they've left behind.

According to Jennifer Marusak, spokesperson for Secretary of State Al Ater, turnout was low for a town-hall tour of the region Ater undertook to help educate evacuees about the election.

But Marusak doesn't know whether turnout was low because people simply aren't interested in voting, or because Ater's PR campaign (i.e., an ad campaign and toll-free hotline) to inform the voters was effective enough that people didn't need more information.

While that last point is debatable, the numbers seem to be lagging as well. As of last week, the state had mailed out 12,000 absentee ballots and received 6,000 calls to their toll-free information line, compared to 700,000 information packages sent out by Ater's office.  The  state is also running full-page ads in 14 papers across the Gulf Coast region to inform voters of their new polling place.

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