Justice OK Selections in New Orleans; Rights Activists Cry Foul

Article excerpt

Byline: Audrey Hudson, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Louisiana officials' efforts to overcome extraordinary circumstances and some bizarre antics to hold New Orleans' first post-Hurricane Katrina election next month got the U.S. Justice Department's approval yesterday.

The state's attempts to locate hundreds of thousands of displaced voters by mail and full-page newspaper ads nationwide, to make mail-in voting easy and to relocate polling precincts were deemed acceptable by government officials.

But the decision neither appeased civil rights activists nor addressed the actions of Kimberly Williamson Butler, New Orleans' recently incarcerated chief election official and new mayoral candidate.Mrs. Butler, the Orleans Parish Clerk of Court, spent three days in jail last week for ignoring a court order before joining the hotly contested field of 23 candidates. This week, she refused to cede her elected post to oversee next month's election.

"I can't kick her out, but I have a small army of people working hand in glove doing what she is supposed to be doing," said Secretary of State Al Ater, the state's top election official who asked Mrs. Butler to step down.

"She will be shadowed and closely watched to make sure this is a legitimate and fair election," he said.

Jesse Jackson's Rainbow-PUSH Coalition and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which asked the Justice Department to review the state's plan to hold primary elections for mayor, City Council and other posts on April 22, will march on the city in protest early next month.

"Two-thirds of the eligible population has been disenfranchised," said Mr. Jackson, who wants satellite polling stations set up in 44 states. "This is more onerous than the poll tax laws of 1965."

Louisiana opted not to open polling stations outside the state. It is one of several Southern states whose election procedures are subject to federal review because of past racial discrimination.

New Orleans was about 70 percent black before Katrina, and some blacks fear they will lose political power if the elections go forward now, when fewer than half of the city's 465,000 inhabitants before the storm have come back.

Mr. Ater dismissed Mr. Jackson as a self-promoter.

"Reverend Jackson has not asked me one question, has not asked for a meeting, or sat down with me to ask for an explanation of the process or point out problems or made one suggestion," Mr. Ater said. "He just wants to take advantage of something and demagogue it. It's too important of an election to be playing personal politics with, and I won't be part of it. …