updated 11/1/2005 5:45:35 PM ET 2005-11-01T22:45:35

New Orleans is scrambling to hold credible elections next year though hundreds of thousands of voters have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana’s secretary of state said Tuesday.

Al Ater said water-logged voting machines and unreachable registered voters are just two of the problems officials in New Orleans and other hurricane-affected places must face.

Race is an issue, too. In New Orleans alone, he estimated 300,000 registered voters — two thirds of them African American — have been forced out of their homes.

“This is probably the most important election in the history of New Orleans because whoever is the leadership in this election is basically going to be charged with rebuilding that city,” Ater said at a forum in Washington sponsored by the Center for American Progress and American Constitution Society. “That is not a small test.”

Ater is leading a state push to change some of the election laws before many state residents simply register elsewhere, forfeiting their right to vote in New Orleans even if they plan to eventually return.

Change in state laws sought
For example, he is asking the Legislature to change the state’s purge laws, which assume voters have moved elsewhere when they miss an election and a notification card sent to their home is returned as undeliverable. If such cards were sent now, the post office has said almost all registered voters in New Orleans would qualify to be purged, Ater said.

Any change to Louisiana election laws — even public service announcements broadcasting the rights of a voter — must get approval by the federal government under the Voting Rights Act. Ater said the Justice Department has assured state officials that it will act quickly to clear the changes.

He also has endorsed a bill introduced by Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., that would let displaced hurricane victims vote absentee in their home communities through the 2008 election, provided they sign a document pledging their intent to return. Davis said Congress needs to act quickly because many residents who have moved out of state are registering there instead, figuring they don’t have a choice.

‘De facto’ redistricting feared
“You don’t redistrict as part of the aftermath of a hurricane,” said Davis, who represents a predominantly black district in eastern Alabama, north of most of the hurricane zone. “If we don’t find some way to protect the rights of these individuals, you will get a de facto political redistricting.”

Davis said he knows some Gulf Coast politicians are salivating about the opportunity to run in hurricane-affected districts because of the apparent demographic change. New Orleans attorney Ronald Wilson questioned whether, if that’s the case, any credible elections can really be held there soon.

Also Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee’s panel on the Constitution held the latest in a series of hearings about key portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that expire next year. Among the provisions is Section 5, the one that requires Louisiana and other states to get federal approval to change their voting laws.

Davis has said he’d prefer to address the question of hurricane-affected voters separately from the Voting Rights Act, so as not to make it more vulnerable to a legal challenge.

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