GOP Help Sought on Post-Katrina Voting

Posted November 1, 2005 at 6:17pm

Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) said Tuesday that he would continue to publicize Democratic-sponsored legislation intended to guarantee absentee voting privileges to Gulf Coast residents displaced by recent hurricanes in an attempt to gain Republican backing for the bill.

The legislation introduced in mid-September, the Displaced Citizens Voter Protection Act of 2005, has gained 38 co-sponsors. But so far, only Democrats have signed on.

“This is not a partisan bill,” asserted Davis, after speaking on a panel Tuesday sponsored by the Center for American Progress and the American Constitution Society to address voting rights for citizens displaced by Hurricane Katrina in early September.

“We’re trying to educate people about the issue now,” Davis added.

The Davis legislation has been assigned to the House Administration Committee, which has oversight of federal elections; hearings on the measure have yet to be scheduled.

Brian Walsh, spokesman for House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), declined to comment specifically on the legislation, but he stated that “these are issues that the committee monitors, as we do with all election-related issues. We have stayed in contact with the Election Assistance Commission and other groups that have a role to play in this.”

A companion bill in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), is now under the jurisdiction of the Rules and Administration Committee.

Despite the difficulty of attracting GOP support, Davis remains optimistic about the legislation’s outcome. When asked to discuss the timeline needed for the bill to have an impact, the Alabama lawmaker noted only that it will need to be in place before November 2006, the date of the next federal elections.

Under the legislation, residents of hurricane-damaged areas who have temporarily relocated to other addresses would be allowed to vote by absentee ballot in federal elections until 2008.

Noting that many college students, military personnel and overseas voters already vote using the same process, Davis said, “I think the evacuees should be treated the same.”

Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater, who also appeared on Tuesday’s panel, spoke favorably about Davis’ legislation and noted that his office is seeking similar legislation from the state Legislature to address local elections.

“We have a monumental challenge,” Ater said. According to Ater, more than half of the voting sites in the approximately 400 voting precincts in storm-ravaged New Orleans have been destroyed, while state-owned voting machines may have also suffered damage from rain and wind during the hurricanes.

While Louisiana officials have requested a list of registered evacuees from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in hopes of tracking down registered voters, privacy regulations have hampered the effort thus far.

“We have a reasonable expectation that we’ll be able to work out something with FEMA,” Ater said.

In the meantime, Ater noted he has met with media outlets to request that they place public information announcements about voting regulations in areas where large numbers of evacuees have registered.

Louisiana law allows registered voters who have an “intent to return” to vote in state elections even while they live outside Louisiana for an unlimited period of time, as long as voters do not register in another state and do not claim the federal homestead exemption outside of Louisiana.

Several panel members raised concerns that voters could nullify their status in the state by registering elsewhere.

In addition to the challenge of ensuring voters a chance to cast a ballot, the state could see its partisan balance and overall Congressional clout influenced by the storms’ impact on population and demographics.

Davis suggested that the federal legislation is necessary to protect the rights of Louisiana residents in the event of a particularly tight race.

“My concern is that elections in Louisiana are very, very close. It is the Southern state that is most evenly divided politically between Democrats and Republicans,” Davis said. “So in other words, you’re going to have an incentive for people to challenge ballots.”