Tens of thousands of New Orleanians returned to work last week. For many, Hurricane Ivan took the blame for missed deadlines, late deliveries and other work-related disruptions. But when it came to voting, Ivan was no excuse. Potentially thousands of storm-weary residents were denied the chance to vote in the Sept. 18 primary elections because 106 voting machines were delivered late to 59 polling places citywide. The debacle has triggered a state attorney general's investigation, calls for legislative hearings, lawsuits and finger pointing.
The courts are not likely to throw out the entire Sept. 18 election, due to wide gaps in vote totals between many candidates on the ballot. However, state law does permit a judge to call a "restricted election" as a remedy in cases where "the number of qualified voters who were denied the right to vote by elected officials was sufficient to change the election if they had been allowed to vote."
The political firestorm rages on. Mayor Ray Nagin and Secretary of State Fox McKeithen, the state's chief elections officer, both have placed responsibility for the fiasco at the feet of Kimberly Williamson-Butler, the newly elected clerk of Criminal District Court. "The clerk of Criminal Court is responsible for making sure machines get to their locations -- end of story!" Nagin said of Butler, his estranged former chief administrative officer.
Early last week, Butler accused her former boss of vindictiveness, faulted McKeithen for not postponing the election, blamed state-contracted movers for failing to deliver all voting machines, and said school officials didn't make sure custodians were present to receive machines. Butler also blamed Hurricane Ivan for the absence of voting custodians and poll commissioners. She later apologized for her remarks and said she takes part of the responsibility for the voting problems.
Butler sits squarely in the center of the public fury and the official investigations. Yet it is troubling that state Attorney General Charles Foti Jr. appears to have placed McKeithen beyond the realm of inquiry. Last week, when Foti announced his probe, he introduced McKeithen as if he were a disinterested investigator who will "assist" with the attorney general's probe of Butler's office. That's inappropriate. Butler has made accusations against the secretary of state, making him at least a key witness in the matter. Because Butler, Foti and McKeithen are all elected officials, the public deserves an independent, fair and impartial review of the election mess. Foti and the appropriate legislative bodies should invite the oversight of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters and other organizations to ensure the integrity of their inquiries.
There are plenty of moving parts -- and players -- in an election. When the system breaks down, the problems must be examined systematically. For example, the secretary of state's office recently assumed the duties of the now-defunct office of former state elections commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell, whose office served as the voting machine custodian for the state. Any review of the Butler case should include the emergency policies and procedures crafted by Terrell in 2002 after hurricanes Lili and Isidore caused the postponement of elections in coastal parishes. Did McKeithen follow those policies?
"There has been a change in the structure of the (state's) elections procedures and a new clerk of court in Orleans -- both of which may have weighed into the problem," says Terrell, who defends McKeithen's insistence on holding the Sept. 18 primary. "If [McKeithen] had postponed an election in Orleans Parish, it would have affected the entire state because of the constitutional amendment."
Speaking of Amendment One, the statewide proposal to ban gay marriages and civil unions passed overwhelmingly on Sept. 18 -- though turnout was far lower than predicted in the 12 parishes evacuated for Ivan. Orleans voters turned out in higher numbers than in neighboring parishes, despite the voting machine debacle. Before Ivan, pollsters predicted Amendment One would push voter turnout skyward. In all, 29.3 percent of registered voters in the city cast ballots. Other parishes that evacuated include Jefferson (16.6 percent turnout), St. Tammany (25.3 percent), St. Bernard (16.2 percent) and Plaquemines (13.6 percent). "People were distracted with personal things after the hurricane; only the most motivated voters got out to vote," pollster John Grimm says.
True. In New Orleans, voters gave schools Superintendent Anthony Amato a clear victory, re-electing two of his supporters and replacing most incumbents allegedly involved in a plot to fire him. Runoffs are scheduled for two school board seats, as well as for criminal sheriff and state public service commissioner. Monday, Sept. 27, is the last day for contesting any outcomes of the Sept. 18 primary. The last day to register to vote in the Nov. 2 election is Monday, Oct. 4. Overall, the low voter turnout in the 12 evacuated parishes should expand our concerns beyond the voting machine snafus in New Orleans. We need quick fixes as well as long-term solutions to our stormy election season. The Nov. 2 presidential election is fast approaching; citizens should consider voting absentee as a precaution. Statewide, we need to evaluate official procedures when storms and elections collide. It's not enough to blame it all on Ivan.