I learned a long time ago that every election is a unique event. 'Tis a fool who expects any election to be just like the one before. The Sept. 18 primary provided one of the best examples of why that ancient wisdom still holds true, and it offers some valuable lessons.
Overall, we learned how fragile our election system is, particularly in the wake of a hurricane and in the face of human error. There's an official investigation under way to uncover what went wrong with the delivery of more than 100 voting machines in Orleans Parish, so I won't speculate as to who or what is at fault. However, we do know who's responsible for making local elections come off without a hitch -- Criminal Court Clerk Kimberly Williamson Butler.
Butler is now in the eye of a political storm, and she has not handled herself very well -- although she was right to apologize late last week for blaming everyone else in the immediate aftermath. I was among those who criticized Butler for passing the buck as the debacle unfolded, so I'll give her credit now for owning up to her mistakes. She's still new in the job, and voters often forgive someone who admits an error, apologizes for it and accepts the consequences of her actions. Above all, Butler must get her act together for the Nov. 2 general election. If there are any more problems, she's history. She is up for election to a full term in February 2006 -- the same time her old boss and adversary, Mayor Ray Nagin, is up for re-election.
Meanwhile, the voting-machine mess exposed a major weakness in our election process. When Election Day and a hurricane both approach at the same time, officials need a definitive playbook to determine how to proceed -- and to keep the public informed -- so that there's no doubt as to whether an election will be held as scheduled. At a minimum, better communication is needed.
Despite the voting machine problems, turnout in New Orleans was significantly higher than in most surrounding parishes. That suggests voters adjusted to the delays, but only a precinct-by-precinct analysis of turnout will determine if that's what really happened.
In the hottest political contests, the returns show a continued erosion of historic voting patterns along racial lines. Specifically, significant numbers of white voters backed black candidates for criminal sheriff, and large numbers of black voters supported white candidates for school board.
In the criminal sheriff's race, many African-American politicos predicted privately that Interim Sheriff Bill Hunter, who is white, would squeak into the runoff ahead of former Deputy Police Chief Warren Riley, who is black, because white voters would vote en masse for the white candidate. That didn't happen. Hunter led in most Lakeview precincts, for example, but he finished only slightly ahead of either Riley or Councilman Marlin Gusman. And in some "silk-stocking" white precincts Uptown, Hunter ran second.
To their collective credit, all candidates for sheriff ran color-blind campaigns. Voters likewise cast their ballots based on factors other than race.
The same is true in the school board contests, where several white candidates beat black opponents in majority-black districts. Una Anderson had the advantage of incumbency, but she still faced strong African-American challengers on her way to capturing 67 percent of the vote in District 6. In District 5, Phyllis Landrieu had a well-known political name, but she still had to get past a well-qualified black opponent to get 64 percent of the vote. And in District 4, challenger Lourdes Moran, a native of Honduras, defeated Board President Ellenese Brooks-Simms, who is black. Brooks-Simms ran third with only 16 percent of the vote; Moran garnered 56 percent.
Incumbents who raise lots of cash between elections should take a lesson from the fate of Public Service Commissioner Irma Muse Dixon, who spent most of her war chest before qualifying and was left with nobody else to tap. Dixon ran third, behind 11th-hour qualifier Lambert Boissiere III. Boissiere ran a smart, well-financed campaign and now is poised to beat state Sen. Cleo Fields for Dixon's PSC seat. No doubt the general election of Nov. 2 will hold lessons of its own.