- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) — The Justice Department should postpone upcoming elections in New Orleans until displaced voters have been located, NAACP officials said yesterday.

“We’re worried about the voting rights of our people in New Orleans who are not, for the most part, in New Orleans,” said Bruce S. Gordon, the group’s president. “People should still have a say in what happens in the communities that were ravaged by Katrina.”

Last week, Mr. Gordon asked Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to make sure election procedures are fair. The Voting Rights Act allows federal officials to scrutinize election changes that may hurt minorities.

“If it requires us to take legal action, we will fight this,” Mr. Gordon said.

A Justice Department spokesman did not return calls seeking comment.

Louisiana lawmakers last week approved plans to set up satellite voting centers in 10 state parishes and allow hurricane refugees to vote by absentee ballot in the April 22 city elections. NAACP officials said that date is too soon.

Barely one-third of its residents have returned to Orleans Parish, which was two-thirds black before Hurricane Katrina, according to estimates from the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. Tens of thousands of displaced people are still without permanent housing, and mail delivery is delayed.

“Protecting voting rights is going to depend on the absentee-ballot process,” said John H. Jackson, NAACP chief policy officer. “The state has the burden of showing that they have accurate information for locating [voters]. We don’t want to have those ballots go out and have them never connect with individuals.”

Kwame I. Asante, president of the NAACP’s Baton Rouge branch, said: “We’ve received many calls from people who are asking, ‘Where do we go? How do we register to vote?’ … It’s too soon for many people.”

Meanwhile, an influential black pastor announced Friday that he will challenge New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin in the election, saying Hurricane Katrina exposed the weaknesses of the administration.

“We have put up with the political foolishness for a long time, and the impact from poor leadership was not shown until the storm showed it,” the Rev. Tom Watson III told about 50 supporters on hand for the announcement.

Mr. Watson, 50, is the first black challenger to Mr. Nagin, who also is black. Nine others, all white, have said they plan to run in the April 22 election. Candidates formally will sign up March 1-3.

Mr. Watson said his campaign will work to engage voters who have been displaced and live in more than 40 states.

“We will go there,” he said. “We will knock on doors, on trailers, on mobile homes. We will be on radio and TV and in print so that our voters will understand our message. So, get ready to pack your bags because we will be traveling the country.”

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