As New Orleanians start returning home and rebuilding their city after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana Secretary of State office is forming a task force to determine the best way to preserve one of the most basic and essential ingredients of a community: government elections.
With one set of elections already postponed and the next vote scheduled for Feb. 4, including the mayoral election, New Orleans CIO Greg Meffert earlier this week proposed online kiosk voting as a way to make ballots available to city residents dispersed by Katrina.
Jennifer Marusak, spokeswoman for the office of Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater, said the task force being formed by her office will consider all options for conducting the February elections. But she said the office remains skeptical of any form of online voting, including Internet kiosks.
The questionable security of such a system and the short period of time in which to plan for it mean online voting kiosks are unlikely, Marusak said.
"The technology is just not proven, not secure enough yet to stop you from voting in Houston and turning around and voting in Dallas and then voting in Lake Charles," Marusak said. "The technology is not there."
Meffert has proposed an Internet voting system similar to an airport kiosk ticketing system. His plan would be modeled after a similar remote voting plan proposed by the Department of Defense for overseas troops. Meffert said New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and the city's registrar of voters had approved the plan. He outlined several steps to ensure voter authentication and accurate, secure ballot counts.
The plan is necessary, Meffert said earlier, because "it's a real issue of how we get democracy to continue here."
Whatever the merits of Meffert's plan, New Orleans officials cannot decide whether to move forward with it on their own. New Orleans' voting procedures are governed by Louisiana state law, Marusak said, which means changes to New Orleans voting laws require approval by the Louisiana Legislature and the federal Department of Justice. Ater's office is drafting a proposal, for consideration at a special legislative session in October, to ease some of those election laws.
Louisiana state law requires elections to be held if at all physically possible, she said. In other words, an election must take place unless a mandatory evacuation is in effect.
Strategies being considered to proceed with February's elections include reaching out to voters to encourage mail-in absentee ballots and setting up voting booths in places where large numbers of evacuated New Orleans residents are now living, such as the Houston Astrodome.
There are 299,298 registered voters in the city of New Orleans, Marusak said.
The first set of post-Katrina elections, scheduled for Oct. 15 and Nov. 12, were postponed by Governor Kathleen Blanco on Sept. 14, on Ater's recommendation.
The February ballot will include precinct-specific races, so each person's ballot must be precinct-specific, Marusak said.
Voting controversies in New Orleans are not new. A year ago, the late delivery of several voting machines to one precinct caused uproar. In that instance, a hurricane had just passed, and as a result, voting machines were delivered later than expected to a precinct that had undergone a voluntary evacuation, Marusak said, "and not everyone was at the precinct."