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End the Waiting Game



We're all waiting for Gov. Kathleen Blanco to decide when New Orleans' citywide elections will be held. The primary was scheduled for Feb. 4, with a runoff on March 4, but Blanco has invoked a state law to postpone the elections indefinitely in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. She has given no indication as to when she'll let us choose our city's leaders.

The Governess by now is well known for taking her sweet time in making big decisions, but this one cries out for a quick resolution. An argument can be made for putting off the elections for a short while, but there's no excuse for delaying them indefinitely. At worst, the elections should be held in April.

How did all this land in Blanco's lap?

The short answer is that the state's election code takes into account the possibility of hurricanes, floods and other disasters. Under state law, the governor, upon recommendation by the secretary of state, can issue an order postponing a regularly scheduled election in the face of a "state of emergency." Secretary of State Al Ater declared a few weeks ago that Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath have left New Orleans in a state of emergency, and he recommended delaying the elections -- until Sept. 30, if necessary. Part of Ater's rationale was the difficulty in locating voters, establishing polling places and getting commissioners to conduct the elections.

Blanco later issued her proclamation delaying the elections, but she did not set a new date for them to proceed. So now New Orleanians have been plunged even further into a state of limbo -- waiting for insurance adjusters, waiting for levee reconstruction, waiting for contractors, waiting for power and phone service, and waiting for the chance to change or keep our city's leadership.

There are several compelling reasons why Blanco should act soon -- and call the elections in April, not September.

First, the whole world watched last week as Iraqis in that war-torn country (and here in the U.S. as well) cast ballots to determine their nation's future. If the United States can bomb the hell out of a country, destroying its infrastructure and its political system, and then hold an election while voters and candidates are stoned and shot at, then why in the hell can't Louisiana allow an election to proceed in New Orleans, where the biggest inconvenience is mildew?

Think about it. Displaced Iraqis all over the globe were allowed to vote in that election. Why is it so hard to find displaced New Orleanians -- who have voted in elections for decades -- and arrange for them either to vote absentee by mail or in person at temporary polling precincts?

Second, Blanco has already scheduled an election in St. Bernard Parish on April 1, with a runoff April 29, so that a new justice of the peace can be chosen.

I've been to St. Bernard Parish since Katrina. It's a lot more devastated than New Orleans. There's not a square block in the entire parish that wasn't flooded after Katrina -- and many parts of St. Bernard flooded again during Hurricane Rita. If St. Bernard can hold an election April 1, why can't New Orleans? True, a majority of New Orleans voters have evacuated. But virtually all St. Bernard voters headed for higher ground, and relatively few have returned.

Pardon the pun, but the argument that many voters might not be able to participate just doesn't hold water. FEMA has offered to help locate displaced New Orleanians. Voter registration records are computerized, so it should be easy to confirm eligible voters. State law already requires each voter to produce a valid state ID at the polls. Poll commissioners from across the state could be brought in or dispatched to locations in other states, if necessary, to conduct this election.

It's not rocket science.

Last week, Louisiana had a good day in Washington, D.C., when President Bush promised $3.1 billion for "better and stronger" levees. We need more days like that. One way to make them happen is to send signals that we're getting our act together. In a democracy, nothing is more fundamental than people voting. Delaying indefinitely the New Orleans elections thus sends the worst possible signal about the state of affairs in Louisiana -- and the state of our leadership.

Come on, Governor. End the waiting game. Let us vote!

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