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Getting Out the Displaced Vote

Volunteers work to provide New Orleans election information to Katrina evacuees now living far from their home polling places.

April 02, 2006|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — For weeks, election volunteer Thomas Louis Wells has roamed apartment complexes such as the Coral Gables, an aging, inexpensive property that has become a temporary home to scores of Katrina evacuees. He's not looking for Texas voters, however, but ones for New Orleans.

With a list of evacuees' apartment numbers in hand, Wells goes door-to-door, urging residents to vote in the New Orleans mayor's race April 22, and offering to help them complete an absentee voter application.

The faces that appear in the doorways may be curious, wary or downright annoyed by the interruption, but Wells -- an exterminator who battled New Orleans' insect population for years -- isn't easily discouraged.

"If there's any time we should stand up and be heard, it's now," said Wells, a volunteer for the Metropolitan Organization, a nonpartisan community advocacy group in Houston. "What happens to New Orleans should be what we want, not what they tell us they're going to do."

Across the nation, volunteers like Wells are searching for tens of thousands of displaced hurricane survivors who may not have the time, motivation or know-how to register for a mail ballot.

It's crucial that voters who have not yet returned to New Orleans have a say in the city's future, said Ginny Goldman, head organizer in Texas for the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN.

"If people want to get their neighborhoods rebuilt, their utilities hooked back up, they'll have to show they have voting power," Goldman said. "We want people to turn their emotion into action. It sends the strong message that people aren't going to sit back and throw their hands up."

ACORN plans to send bus caravans to Louisiana from Houston and five other cities so that Katrina survivors can cast their votes in person.

The Metropolitan Organization has launched absentee voter drives in Atlanta, Dallas and other cities with significant numbers of evacuees, but Houston -- with 150,000 Katrina survivors -- is the biggest target area. Volunteers have tracked down voters in apartment complexes, job fairs, churches, parking lots with Louisiana license plates, "wherever people meet," said Rudy Adams, a retired high school teacher from New Orleans East.

The group also has organized what it calls an accountability session for Saturday in New Orleans: Mayoral candidates will answer questions during a videoconference that will be broadcast live to Houston and Austin, Texas; Memphis, Tenn.; and other cities with large numbers of evacuees.

Meanwhile, in New Orleans on Saturday, about 2,000 people attended a rally at the convention center to demand a better voting system for displaced residents. The Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and others there said the current system made it too difficult for displaced people to vote, and they called for establishing more satellite polling places.

In Houston, three weeks before the election, it's unclear how many displaced voters will take part in voting by absentee ballot.

The Metropolitan Organization set a goal of registering 10,000 absentee voters in Houston; 1,600 people have signed up so far. Organizers say the numbers will grow as election day nears and as volunteers begin canvassing up to five apartment complexes a day.

Nationwide, fewer than 10,000 people have requested absentee ballots, according to the Louisiana secretary of state's office. Orleans Parish has 297,000 registered voters.

Civil rights leaders and black leaders are poised to challenge the result of an election that they argue disenfranchises tens of thousands of voters, black voters in particular.

At the Coral Gables apartment complex, many seemed unaware of the voting controversy or, for that matter, who was running for mayor other than incumbent C. Ray Nagin. But most were interested when Wells or other volunteers appeared at their door, and readily completed the absentee forms.

Tawn Green, an air-conditioning repairman from New Orleans' West Bank, said he had returned to Louisiana several times to work on his ruined home and to help his relatives with theirs.

He said that it was depressing to see so little progress in the city -- and that that's one reason some have no interest in an election 350 miles away.

"They think it won't make any difference," Green said. Others, fearing future hurricanes or caught up in a new life elsewhere, will never move back, he said.

But Green said he hoped the April 22 election would change the way New Orleans approached its problems, because he had not given up on the city: "There's nothing nowhere like home. There's nothing like New Orleans."

In a nearby apartment, an election volunteer walked Tabitha Moore through the mail ballot application. Moore said she had been an assistant manager at a Domino's pizza parlor in New Orleans for 11 years. She wants to go back to her old job, she said, but not to the mess that still remains.

As with many evacuees, the waiting and uncertainty have hardened into frustration and anger.

"They want us to come back, but what am I coming back to? Nothing's being done there," Moore said. "I don't think they're hearing us, because we're not over there.

"I just hope our votes make it clear they better start listening."

*

Times wire services contributed to this report.

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