- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

HOUSTON (AP) — Driving through parts of the city densely packed with Hurricane Katrina evacuees, Eusi Phillips makes two deliveries: a stack of absentee-voter forms and fliers urging tenants from New Orleans to cast their ballot in the April 22 election back home.

In the apartment laundry rooms, Mr. Phillips hopes to find Louisiana’s newest power bloc of voters.

“It’s a matter of circling the wagons,” said Mr. Phillips, 27, who has been canvassing Houston apartments each weekend and has built a voter information Web site (www.beheardcampaign.org). “In communities like the Lower 9th Ward, how are they going to have a say in what happens there if we don’t reach these people and get them to vote?”

Across Houston, Mr. Phillips and representatives of at least two nonpartisan groups are rallying eligible voters among the 150,000 refugees who have remained in the city since Katrina landed in August. Most volunteer campaigners are frustrated, homesick evacuees like Mr. Phillips, who say nothing about party politics but speak, with rising anger, about who’s going to fix what’s broken in New Orleans.

The groups search for voters at job fairs and churches. They comb parking lots for Louisiana license plates and don’t easily relent when faced with excuses.

Never voted before? Here’s the form you need.

Leery about mailing in an absentee ballot? There’s a bus you can ride to the nearest Louisiana polling station for free.

It’s an effort that may be unparalleled domestically since the 1860s, when soldiers cast ballots in the Civil War, said Michael McDonald, an assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason University in Virginia.

“The big unknown here is how many people still feel a part of the community,” said Mr. McDonald, who studies voting trends and behavior. “I suppose one of the things we’ll see coming out of the election is that if turnout is low among absentees, it might be that many of these people have no intention of returning.”

Organizers insist that won’t happen. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now aims to sign up 25,000 evacuees nationwide before the election. Another community advocate, the Metropolitan Organization, set its goal at 10,000.

But with three weeks before the election, the numbers seem lagging. The two groups have about 4,000 Houston signatures combined. Nationwide, about 10,000 evacuees have mailed absentee-ballot requests, said Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater.

Mr. Phillips, who spent about $1,000 creating a Web site and printing fliers and T-shirts, said he’s had more than 11,000 hits on his site since January.

The unemployed law-school graduate got involved after he failed to receive one of 700,000 voter-information mailers that Mr. Ater says his office sent to evacuees, using addresses provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But even with the aggressive push, not everyone is paying attention. New Orleans resident James Mackie Jr., who filed for an absentee ballot with about a dozen others after a church service for refugees in a Houston hotel, thinks some evacuees are too preoccupied to concentrate on an election.

“They’re still trying to get their lives together here,” Mr. Mackie said. “Honestly, voting is not their No. 1 priority right now.”

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