Friday, April 21, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — State and local officials, expecting legal challenges to the first post-Katrina election today, are taking special steps to safeguard the integrity of the process that will decide who leads this hurricane-ravaged city’s revival.

Secretary of State Al Ater said every precaution has been taken to avoid corruption or disenfranchisement of any kind, from recording all 13,000 calls to the election hot line to accepting early ballots by fax and setting up satellite voting stations statewide.

“Will there be a bump or two in the road tomorrow? I am certain there will be, but we have done everything possible to make this election fair and accessible for everyone who wants to participate,” Mr. Ater said yesterday.

Many of the city’s 297,000 registered voters who have been displaced since fleeing the flooded city in August are expected to return solely to select one of 22 mayoral candidates and to fill seven City Council seats and a few other local positions.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent, the top two vote-getters will face off in a May 20 runoff election.

Most observers predict Mayor C. Ray Nagin will advance to the runoff against Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu or executive Ron Forman, but whoever ultimately wins will confront a city that has lost half of its 480,000 residents and faces what is considered the largest post-World War II rebuilding process.

Civil rights groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition have called the election unfair and said it should have been postponed.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson has been in the city all week, denouncing the election, but on Wednesday, at a rally at Grambling State University, he urged voters to participate, anyway.

“So we vote against the odds, but it is unfair and difficult,” he said. “It’s amazing we will allow privileges for people in Iraq but not allow people in America.”

Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat, yesterday said she will not be surprised if the election is challenged. “There have been challenges to elections a lot simpler than this,” she said.

Mr. Ater said every effort has been made to locate registered voters, including taking out full-page ads in every newspaper in the state, sending postcards to every registered voter and mailing absentee ballots overnight to those requesting them.

“And the state legislature has given our displaced residents the same voting privileges as our men and women of the military,” he said.

He said the current voting numbers fall in line demographically with the city. The racial makeup of the city before the storm was about 63 percent black and 37 percent white and other, and in the early voting 68 percent of the votes have been cast by blacks and 32 percent by other ethnic groups.

Criminal District Court Clerk Kimberly Williamson-Butler, who is running for mayor and supervising the local election, said she has poll workers keeping logs of when polls open and close, how many machines are available, when the machines arrive at the precincts, and the times the machines are operable.

Mr. Ater said he was concerned about the obvious conflict of interest with Mrs. Williamson-Butler: “I thought, and I told her so, that she should have stepped down from her election position to run for mayor.” But he said the significant involvement of the state and Federal Court supervisors should put voters’ concerns to rest.

About 100 poll greeters who arrived yesterday will use laptops linked to an upgraded registration database to help voters find their polling sites among the 443 precincts and those condensed into four super polling stations.

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