A fatal mix of “misinformation and authority”

The Gambit has an excellent article about the city’s voting problems, which I observed firsthand as an Election Protection volunteer. I quote from it extensively, but go read the whole thing if you can.

On the heels of Florida in 2000 and Sept. 18 in New Orleans, every part of the Nov. 2 election received more scrutiny than ever, mostly due to the efforts of the Louisiana Election Protection Coalition. The locally based group — part of the National Election Protection Program, an organization devoted to safeguarding minority voting rights — marshaled more than 300 volunteers to monitor local polls and amassed a volunteer team of attorneys.

Here is an account of the problem precinct Ratboy and I brought some media attention to. This is a very accurate description of events. If anything, it understates the problems.

The smooth election proceedings that would be reported statewide following Nov. 2 were nowhere in evidence at the basement polling place located in a home at 3915 Louisiana Avenue Pkwy. Callers had reported to New Orleans ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) that both voting machines at the site were not functioning at 7:42 a.m. and still not working at 8:25 a.m. At 8:40 a.m., a voter succeeded in casting a vote on the one working machine, but asked an Election Protection volunteer whether her vote would register. “I don’t know how the machine was fixed if nobody came out to fix it,” the volunteer says.

By 10:20 a.m., Arleen Robertson had been on the scene for nearly three hours. A longtime resident from across the street, Robertson had been recruited as an Election Protection volunteer after her own attempt to vote at 7 a.m. was thwarted by the non-working machines. Wearing a white-on-black T-shirt proclaiming “YOU have the right to VOTE” and the toll-free Election Protection hotline number, she stands on the sidewalk and takes down the names and phone numbers of those who leave without voting.

By 10:30 a.m., her list covers two-and-a-half legal-sized pages. Two technicians have come and gone, and both machines are now working. But Robertson worries that several people on her list won’t come back.

At 10:53 a.m., a sniffling Loreal Hamilton emerges from inside the basement polling place and heads for her car. “I came at 7:15 and came again at 10:05, and I finally voted at 10:50,” says Hamilton. On each of her previous trips, Hamilton says, she’d been told that the machines weren’t working. Sometime before 10 a.m., commissioners apparently began dealing with the broken machines by handing out Federal Provisional Ballots — not the proper procedure, according to Election Protection lawyers. On Hamilton’s second trip, the machines were still broken and there weren’t even any more provisional ballots.

At 10:50 a.m., Hamilton casts her ballot by voting machine without incident. “But this was a hassle,” she says, her eyes rheumy with what she thinks is the flu.

More good stories:

At Engine House No. 21 on Paris Avenue, which houses the Seventh Ward’s Precinct 26A, a long line stretches out the big double doors. In front, two sets of baggy pants stand behind the curtains in the voting booths. [Deborah] Chapman laughs out loud and points at two more young men walking into the booths.

“Look,” she says. “They’re holding up their pants with one hand and pushing the vote button with the other.”

BETH BUTLER’S FAVORITE SCENE from Election Day 2004 will always be the polling place at Frederick Douglass High School in the lower Bywater. Butler arrived there in the midst of the deluge that swept the city around 4 p.m. and knocked out the school’s power. Instead of being deterred, however, voters continued to file into Douglass, trudging through the rain with their umbrellas. Inside, they used cigarette lighters to find their names on precinct books and flashlights to find their way into the voting booths.

To Butler and Bradberry, the election was inspiring because it showed how determined New Orleanians were to cast their votes — and to protect the votes of others. Butler smiles as she recounts how volunteers returned to the ACORN office at the end of a 14-hour day, still pumped, and asked when they could work another election. “What a great citizen participation we had,” she says.

The two are less sanguine, though, when they talk about Tuesday’s problems. Butler sees them as part of a systemic disenfranchisement of Louisiana voters, in which garbled rules and regulations act like the literacy tests of old to keep voters out. Bradberry believes that many election commissioners half understand the laws but are afraid of going to jail if they don’t enforce them rigidly, creating a fatal mix of “misinformation and authority.”

Training and adequate supplies of quality voting equipment are essential for New Orleans to get the representation it deserves. Politicians and election-day functionaries are failing their communities. Democrats must make this an issue , and ensure necessary reforms occur.

The Xavier students who stood in a 1200 person line for 6+ hours to vote– and persisted EVEN AFTER all the state’s races had been called, some casting their ballot after 1am at night– all deserve gold medals for citizenship. I’d love to see the response if such a travesty occured in some select Old Metairie precincts. How long would rich white conservatives wait in line to vote? What kind of stink would they make? And, afterwards, would GOP Secretary of State Fox McKeithen have the gall to say:

“We haven’t found one accusation [Election Protection] made to be true. [Voting] went as smoothly as anybody could hope for — it was smooth as silk.”

After my experience Nov 2nd, I’m almost fascinated by how egregiously misinformed (or sinister?) that statement is.

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