- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 17, 2005

Louisiana legislators are scrambling to enable displaced voters who have moved to distant states to cast absentee ballots in a February election by loosening the state’s identification requirements, although the idea’s backers suffered a pair of defeats yesterday.

A bill in the House and Senate limits existing laws that require first-time voters who have registered by mail to show identification and to vote in person.

Opponents of changing the law say it could lead to voter fraud in a state with a long and colorful history of political corruption.

A Senate panel this week passed a bill, introduced by state Sen. Charles Jones of upstate Monroe, a Democrat, that would loosen identification requirements because, Mr. Jones said, “an unprecedented number of persons have been temporarily displaced from their parishes of residence for an indefinite period.”

The full Senate rejected it on a 20-16 vote yesterday, and the House later rejected a voter bill from Rep. Jalila Jefferson-Bullock, New Orleans Democrat.

But other, similar bills are pending.

“It’s a work in progress, but once it takes life, it can take other forms and go right back to how it started,” said state Sen. Jay Dardenne, Baton Rouge Republican.

Mr. Dardenne said the Jones bill initially let voters registered through the federal Motor-Voter Act cast a first-time absentee ballot in 2006.

“It would have created a universe of 23,000 potential voters, all of whom never bothered to vote before,” said Mr. Dardenne, who amended the bill in committee.

Jennifer Marusak, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Al Ater, says the legislation would ensure that storm refugees can vote.

“Before you can vote by mail, someone has to see that you exist. You can’t register a ton of people by mail, that opens it up to voter fraud, that’s valid. But that’s why only people who registered before Sept. 24 can vote,” she said.

Hurricane Rita hit the Louisiana and Texas coast on that date.

“In our mind, they had every intention of coming to vote and did not anticipate not being able to get to their local precinct. We’re giving them the benefit of the doubt,” she said.

Restrictions in the legislation, including a one-year sunset and a requirement for identification affidavits, will cut down on fraud, supporters say.

Mr. Dardenne questions whether displaced residents could pay a notary public for an affidavit. He said he wants people to vote, but “the integrity of the process” needs protection.

“We do have a colorful history; other states do as well,” he said.

For example, in 1996, losing Senate candidate Woody Jenkins filed with the U.S. Senate 15 volumes of accusations of vote buying, multiple voting, forged signatures and cover-ups by Democrat officials. Mary Landrieu was eventually seated as senator.

When the state tried to reduce fraud in the 1950s with machines, the late Gov. Earl Long boasted, “Gimme five [election] commissioners, and I’ll make them voting machines sing ‘Home Sweet Home.’”

The attempt to loosen the law comes in the context of political fighting over placing Katrina evacuees.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced this week that at month’s end, it would cease paying hotel bills for most of the displaced families. The agency wants some of the 53,000 families to find long-term housing or move into travel trailers, mobile homes or apartments until they find such homes.

Several black politicians also have expressed outrage over the racial effects of Katrina, saying Louisiana’s poor and black residents took the brunt of the hit.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, have charged that relocating refugees across the country was “racist” and designed to move black people, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, out of Louisiana.

The demographic makeup of New Orleans, whose population of 480,000 was about 70 percent black the day Katrina made landfall, is likely to be permanently changed. The city counts a population now of about 70,000, with others returning daily.

Alphonso R. Jackson, U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, said New Orleans would not reach its pre-Katrina population “for a long time,” and “it’s not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again.”

One obstacle to the voting plan was cleared this week when FEMA officials agreed to mail information on voting by absentee to refugees. Previously, state officials sought new addresses from the federal agency, which refused, citing privacy concerns.

Mr. Ater had offered to supply the federal agency with a list of registered voters. However, FEMA declined and will only send voting information to those who have requested federal aid.

A FEMA spokeswoman said that 980,500 displaced Louisiana residents have registered and been approved for aid, “which means there is some level of verification in their registration.”

“We can only send to those who register [with FEMA], because those are the only ones who we know where they are,” Nicol Andrews said.

State officials and party leaders also are debating whether scheduled elections should be held. Elections Commissioner Angie LaPlace told the Legislature this week that the Feb. 4 primary, which includes the New Orleans mayoral race, should be postponed.

The secretary of state’s office expects a formal postponement request soon, and the decision will come after the Legislature’s special session concludes later this month.

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