New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin fell short of a majority of votes in Saturday's municipal election and will now go into a runoff election with his closest rival, Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu. With 94 percent of the votes counted, Nagin won about 38 percent to Landrieu's 28 percent.

It was one of the oddest municipal elections in US history, with voters scattered all over the country participating through absentee ballots and by traveling back to vote in special satellite voting centers in Louisiana or at polling places in New Orleans.

More than half of the people of New Orleans continue to live elsewhere after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina last August. Hundreds of New Orleanians living here in Houston, for example, took special charter buses to their home city in order to take advantage of early voting arrangements in recent weeks. Many more voted by absentee ballot.

Officials say the process went smoothly, although voter turnout was not as high as some had expected.

There were 23 candidates in all and now the two top vote winners, Nagin and Landrieu, will face each other in a runoff election to be held May 20. The winner will assume office May 30 if there are no legal snags.

Race has played a significant role in this election. Mayor Nagin is black and Lt Governor Landrieu is white. Nagin won his first election in 2002 with a great deal of white support, but he came under heavy criticism for his handling of the recovery effort after Katrina. Landrieu is the son of the last white person to hold the mayor's office, Moon Landrieu, who left office in 1978. He and his sister, Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, have counted on widespread black support in their political careers, but polls have indicated that even many in the black community who were upset with Nagin said they would support him in order to keep a black in office.

Complicating the issue further is the fact that whites now make up a larger percentage of the population of New Orleans than they did before Katrina. Many thousands of black people displaced by the storm and subsequent flooding have no homes to which they can return. Some civil rights leaders objected to holding the election because they thought it would be unfair to the poor black voters who have not been able to return.