How do you hold a city election when half your polling places are destroyed? How do you inform voters when they are scattered across the country? And how, in the middle of so much confusion, do you guard against fraud?
New Orleans needs to answer those questions before Feb. 4, when it is scheduled to hold a mayoral primary and City Council races.
On Thursday, members of a state elections task force said Louisiana will need to bring in temporary voting buildings, individually inspect hundreds of voting machines and hire dozens of new elections workers before the city elections.
The task force, which met for the first time Thursday, was set up to figure out how to hold elections in areas devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
“It’ll be a real challenge to see that we can get precincts and equipment there,” said Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater.
Some elections across southwestern Louisiana were pushed back or delayed indefinitely by Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Delaying city elections, however, may be impossible, said state Rep. Peppi Bruneau, a New Orleans Republican.
The date of the mayoral election is specified in the city’s home rule charter, and Bruneau said changing it may require an adjustment to the Louisiana Constitution — which would necessitate an election.
Help from FEMA to replace voting machines
Ater said his office is working to hold the New Orleans elections on schedule. He said the state applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for about $2.5 million to replace damaged voting machines and inspect those housed in damaged warehouses, asked FEMA to provide lists of known evacuees to cross-check with voting registration records, and talked to federal officials about bringing in temporary precinct buildings and generators.
Elections officials expect to send out thousands of absentee ballots around the country, and also are considering the creation of mobile precincts in cities with large numbers of evacuees, such as Houston or Atlanta.
New Orleans will need to hire and train at least 60 temporary employees to handle the expected huge influx of absentee ballots, said Louis Keller, Orleans Parish registrar of voters.
Members of the task force supported the idea of a publicity campaign across many states to tell voters how they can cast ballots. Lawmakers stressed that voters should be notified in as many ways as possible so that the election results will not be challenged for lack of representation.
Bruneau warned, however, that officials must move cautiously in making changes to the elections system, given Louisiana’s rich history of corruption and chicanery.
“We need to be very careful about what we do,” he said. “We have had a history in this state of, let’s just say, checkered elections.”