Saturday is voting day in New Orleans, but it is likely that more than half the votes in this municipal election will be cast somewhere else. An estimated six out of ten residents of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina struck in August of last year now reside in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and other cities around the country. Voter interest is high.
In one of the most unusual elections in US history, New Orleans voters will choose the city's next mayor from a list of 23 candidates, one of whom is the current mayor, Ray Nagin. The one issue that looms over all others this year is Katrina and how the city should proceed in recovering from the disaster.
Because of Katrina and the attention it drew to New Orleans, Mayor Nagin has become an international figure. His face is recognized around the world, but the judgment on his effectiveness in office varies widely, especially among his constituents.
The former cable company executive, who is black won his first term partly by appealing to white voters, but that is now the group most critical of his performance. He enraged many people in January when he told a black audience that New Orleans would once again be a chocolate city. He later apologized, saying that he was only trying to reassure his African-American audience that the thousands of blacks displaced by Katrina would be able to return.
Nagin has two main challengers. One is Louisiana Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu, son of former Mayor Moon Landrieu and brother of current U.S. Senator from Louisiana Mary Landrieu. The other is Ron Forman, a former president of the Audubon Nature Institute who has strong backing in the business community and more than $1.5 million in campaign contributions.
The outcome of the election could be determined by voters far from the Crescent city, in places like Houston, where local community activists from the ACORN organization (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) have been helping displaced New Orleanians vote by absentee ballot or at satellite stations in nearby Louisiana cities like Lake Charles, which is 220 kilometers east of Houston.
ACORN organizer Rachel Zeno tells VOA that her group will be taking at least one more busload of voters to New Orleans Saturday. "We have, so far, one charter bus taking people. We have been taking people to do early voting for the past two weeks at Lake Charles, at the satellite location. So far, we have taken 150 people to Lake Charles to vote," she said.
The satellite station in Lake Charles is one of ten such centers set up around Louisiana for the election. In New Orleans, there are 76 voting locations, down from the 262 used in the last mayoral election in 2002. In addition, some 16,000 people requested absentee ballots for this election, ten times as many as there were in the last election.
Voter turnout for past elections has been around 40 percent, but political observers believe the special circumstances created by Katrina will motivate many more people to vote in this election, even though they must overcome many more barriers and difficulties than they did in the past.