Like most things in New Orleans these days, the debate over whether Louisiana should authorize additional satellite voting precincts has degenerated into a race war. It didn't have to be that way.
For starters, there are a lot of displaced white voters in places like Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala. In fact, according to demographer Gregory Rigamer, whose research has helped guide local and state recovery commissions as well as universities and private businesses, New Orleans voters have either returned or remained displaced in pretty much the same racial and ethnic proportions that defined the city before Hurricane Katrina. That is, local residents who have returned to the city or its immediate environs are roughly two-thirds African American and one-third white and "other." Ditto for those who still reside more than two hours away.
So why is it that the folks who are clamoring for satellite voting precincts outside Louisiana are almost all black? And why are those who oppose that idea almost all white?
Just as Katrina blew down and flooded the homes of the rich and the poor, the black and the white, so has the ensuing New Orleans diaspora affected all elements of local society.
For some reason, there's an expectation (or fear, depending on your politics) that the city's "changing demographics" will radically alter New Orleans' political landscape. Yet, Rigamer's research has consistently shown that the city remained majority black during and after Katrina -- and that it remains majority black today. There has been no seismic demographic shift in the wake of the storm. That should be good news for those who want to "bring New Orleans black," and bad news for whites who think they have a shot to "take back" the city.
That does not mean that some black candidates can't or won't lose to white opponents, and vice versa. By most accounts, and despite some candidates' attempts to run race-conscious campaigns, the vast majority of voters appear to be backing candidates based on their platforms and qualifications -- or because they just don't like the incumbents. Mayor Ray Nagin is a perfect example. He is running an overtly "black" campaign, yet he had 10 black opponents when qualifying closed March 3. He's getting the largest share of black votes in most polls, but a large number of black voters consistently choose one or more of his white opponents -- probably because they just don't like the way Nagin has handled the job, or because they like one of his white opponents better. Conversely, a significant number of whites still support Nagin. The storm didn't change our demographics nearly as much as it changed our perceptions of ourselves and our so-called leaders.
What does this have to do with satellite voting?
It's all a matter of perceptions and expectations -- and fears.
Opponents of increased satellite voting pretty much have just one argument: they fear it will lead to widespread fraud. Ask any of them to produce a shred of evidence to support that claim, however, and you get a long pause.
I recently appeared on a talk show with a conservative commentator who asserted that satellite voting would lead to fraud -- as if it were self-evident. When I asked about the displaced white voters, he responded that it was easy enough for everyone to just make a phone call and mail in a ballot. He also noted that the vast majority of New Orleans voters are not in faraway places, but right here in Louisiana. I agree with him on that last point.
But even if only 10 percent of our voters are currently outside Louisiana, that's still nearly 30,000 registered voters. What's wrong with getting elections officials in Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia to help us --Êjust this once -- reconnect our displaced fellow citizens with New Orleans? Besides, if there's so few of them out there, the potential for fraud is diminished. At the same time, the significance of our government reaching out and making it easier for people to exercise one of our nation's most fundamental rights -- the right to vote -- cannot be overstated.
One more word about fraud: Because the balloting crosses state lines, any attempt at vote tampering should trigger federal jurisdiction. Does anyone doubt that Republican U.S. Attorney Jim Letten would throw the book at anybody he suspects of rigging mailed or computer-generated ballots that cross state lines?
Maybe all that commotion is not really fear of fraud.
Maybe it's fear of ... participation.
Now that would explain why this thing has become so polarized.