Mid-Summer Voting in New Orleans: Legacy of failed Reconstruction

Posted August 10, 2008

Three years after the floodwaters of the Hurricane Katrina subsided, the people of New Orleans voters are plagued by barriers to voting, misinformation and disenfranchisement .

In late July, I received a call from a United Teachers of New Orleans phone banker. Before Katrina, UTNO was the largest union in the state, and they have often promoted property tax renewals as a revenue stream for public schools. These millages go to general upkeep of the schools, air conditioning, textbooks, educational materials and teacher salaries. I figured this was an important vote and committed to going to the polls. It turned out that actually figuring out where to vote was a more difficult task.

My attempt to vote began with a morning reminder call. They told me that my polling place is Drew Elementary in the 9th Ward. However, I can’t actually vote at Drew; my updated voter registration reflects a new address.

After shuffling through stacks of papers, I finally located my new (two month old) voter registration card to verify that my polling place had changed. The voter card said that my polling place was Jesuit High School. I showered and dressed.

An hour after the call, I’d arrived at Jesuit. High school kids played basketball in the gymnasium. No sign of a polling place. I walked around the block searching for the polling place. Finally I saw signs for a different ward laying on the lawn in front of a nearby building, but the doorI was locked. Around the block, I found a different door with something taped on it – at last, it was a polling station!

Through the door, the poll was set up for two precincts only. After I presented my voter card and ID, I learned that neither of them were mine. In fact, I am not even sure of my ward or precinct, as they are not noted on my voter registration card. One poll worker insisted that she knew my precinct and told me to head to “Sheriff Foti’s Jail” to vote. (Foti was replaced by Marlin N. Gusman as sheriff five years ago, and I know that Orleans Parish Prison is nowhere close to my precinct). One sympathetic poll worker strained to look at my card two or three times then called her supervisor. Eventually she determines that I am in Ward 5, Precinct 8. Sure enough, in the corner of the card with no other designation is 05/08. I – and the poll workers – had earlier assumed those numbers simply noted the date of issue. Finally we determine my polling place: Albert Wicker Elementary, some 20 blocks away. Luckily, I drive a car.

In the early afternoon, I arrived at Wicker. Friendly precinct workers verified my voter eligibility. I pulled back the curtain to go into the voting booth. Four ballot propositions make up the millage. I quickly pulled the lever and leave.

My voting precinct has changed only once since Hurricane Katrina. But my polling place has changed four times! All of the trouble was worth it. Everyone predicted that this election would have low turnout, and some guesses ran as low as 15%. With those numbers, rich white uptowners (who send their kids to private schools) had a real chance to vote down the millages.

Fifteen percent ended up being optimistic. The nightly news reported the voter turnout at just over 7%! Of those 7%, some 85% of Orleans Parish voters approved the property tax renewal dedicated to improving the public school system. Since the measure was not a tax increase and was supported by local government, charter schools, and most good government groups, the news reported that it was not a controversial election, and therefore didn’t attract voters. Further, due to abysmal voter turnout, this would be the last time that New Orleans will have summer voting.

The side I critically supported in this vote won. But the lesson I take away from the ordeal is not that “civic participation counts,” that UTNO won because they mobilized their too thin base, or that “voter turnout was low because of summer heat and the millage was not controversial.” The main impression was that three years after Katrina people have to fight to be able to vote.