Politics is in the air, both nationally and locally, and voter interest is expected to increase after the national Democratic and Republican conventions. "Voter registration is beginning to pick up," says Orleans Parish registrar of voters Louis Keller Sr., whose office is conducting a "No Voter Left Behind" registration drive. Meanwhile, Jefferson Parish registrar of voters Dennis DiMarco is less concerned about voter registration than voter participation. "You do have a boost in registration after the conventions," he says. "The problem is not registration, it's getting people to vote."
To paraphrase the words of a 9/11 family member after the successful battle to get Congress to investigate the 2001 terrorist attacks: Democracy works -- but it takes work to make it work. Now, as we face domestic challenges and the overarching threat of terror, and as many of our young men and women risk their lives overseas, those words are more true than ever.
That's why Gambit Weekly is joining citizens throughout the city in encouraging voters to make sure they register and vote in three upcoming elections. That's right -- three. In addition to the Sept. 18 local elections and the Nov. 2 presidential race, voters should be prepared to vote again on Dec. 4 if any run-offs are required for a United States Senate seat and three U.S. House seats in the metro area. Check your registration sooner rather than later. If you have moved in the last few years or changed your marital status, you might need to update your voter registration records.
For the next three weeks, this paper will carry full-page calls for voters to register. If you access our Web site, www.bestofneworleans.com, you will find a link to Declare Yourself, a national nonprofit, nonpartisan campaign to encourage young Americans to vote. You may also register to vote at driver's license offices, public assistance agencies, and at the registrar of voter's branch offices. You can also obtain a mail-in registration form from the Louisiana secretary of state (www.sec.state.la.us/elections).
Now is the time to mark several key dates in the upcoming campaign season:
• All candidates for both the September and November elections will qualify this week, from Aug. 4-6.
• Louisiana residents have until 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 18, to make sure they are registered to vote for the Sept. 18 primary. Absentee voting for the September primary is Sept. 7-11.
• The deadline for voter registration in the Nov. 2 presidential election is 4:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 4. Absentee voting is Oct. 21-26.
• Nov. 3 is the last day to register for the Dec. 4 run-off elections. Absentee voting will be the week of Thanksgiving, Nov. 22-27.
The presidential election is the Super Bowl of American politics. But the September primary includes many key decisions as well. Voters statewide will decide whether to lock a controversial ban on same-sex marriage into the Louisiana Constitution. Voters in Orleans and Jefferson parishes will elect a state public service commissioner. In New Orleans, all seven seats on the troubled Orleans Parish School Board are up for grabs. The city's 257,017 registered voters will elect a new criminal sheriff for the first time in 30 years. Of the 12 judicial seats on the local ballot, two were formerly held by judges felled by scandal. In Jefferson Parish, voters will elect a state appellate court judge and fill a vacant school board seat on the West Bank. Voters in Kenner will elect a district council member to a vacant seat.
Voter turnout in both Orleans and Jefferson is generally higher among the elderly, the affluent and property owners. In Jefferson, turnout is high in smaller communities where voters "have a greater identification with their elected officials," DiMarco says. For example, the tiny coastal community of Grand Isle saw an astounding 72 percent voter turnout in its April 17 municipal elections for mayor and police chief. By comparison, only 44 percent of registered voters in New Orleans went to the polls in the 2002 primary election for mayor. In Jefferson, affluent neighborhoods such as Old Metairie and Chateau Estates in Kenner consistently enjoy higher voter turnouts. In Orleans Parish, homeowners on the Lakefront and in Pontchartrain Park, the Garden District and parts of eastern New Orleans can be counted as "chronic voters."
In both parishes, the long-term effect of youth-oriented "Rock the Vote" campaigns and hip-hop voter summits has yet to be realized. DiMarco says voter participation among the elderly (age 65 and over) is more than 40 percent higher than that of Jefferson Parish's youngest voters (ages 18-20). In Orleans Parish, political consultant Gregory Rigamer reports that 63 percent of all elderly voters turned out for the 2002 mayoral primary, compared to a mere 3.8 percent of the city's youngest voters. Keller says his office has been working closely with colleges and universities in the New Orleans area to register more young voters. But even among those registered, shockingly few are making it to the voting booths.
Democracy works if we make it work. Get ready to vote.