Why won't FEMA support absentee voting efforts in Louisiana?

As I was sitting in the airport waiting to get on my flight to Buenos Aires, the television programs in the airport were blaring about the latest natural disaster — Hurricane Wilma. Due to some odd coincidence, it seems that each time this summer that a major hurricane has headed to the United States, I’ve headed on a flight right into the midst of the storm, including Katrina, Rita and now Wilma!

In any case, as I was watching the coverage of Hurricane Wilma, my thoughts drifted back to Hurricane Katrina and the hundreds of thousands who remain displaced in that disaster’s aftermath, I wondered about what efforts are being undertaken by election officials to figure out where voters displaced from Louisiana and Mississippi now are, and how they are going to get in touch with those voters to make sure they are not disenfranchised in upcoming elections in both states.

Then coincidence strikes again, when I grab a copy of the Wall Street Journal, and find a short article buried on page A6, titled “New Orleans Elections in Doubt As Voter Tracking Hits Snags.” According to this story, “The Federal Emergency Management Agency notified Louisiana officials that it won’t fund a plan to help displaced New Orleans voters participate in local elections or give state leaders access to FEMA’s database containing temporary addresses of evacuated residents.”

According to the WSJ story, the state has estimated that it could cost as much as $750,000 for the state to mount a national advertising campaign to inform displaced New Orleans voters that they can vote in upcoming February local elections no matter where they are now located. Indeed, that seems like a lot of money for an advertising campaign, but given what these voters have gone through — and the obvious need to make sure they are not disenfranchised and that they can participate in selecting city leaders who will be critical actors in the rebuilding of New Orleans — I couldn’t help but think that this is a worthwhile investment in rebuilding the civic capacity of those displaced New Orleans voters. If FEMA won’t make this investment in rebuilding the civic capacity of New Orleans, perhaps other federal agencies or private entities can step up to the plate to help, ranging from the EAC, to other election officials in states with high concentrations of Katrina-displaced voters, to private foundations?

While we can debate the FEMA’s decision to not invest in the rebuilding the civic capacity of New Orleans, it really seems shortsighted for FEMA not to share contact information with Louisiana state officials. According to the WSJ story, FEMA’s rationale for denying access to the list of displaced individuals stems from privacy concerns. Maybe there is indeed some specific legal basis for FEMA’s decision (and I have no doubt that Election Updates readers will let me know if this is the case). But it is really hard to see how the concept of a federal agency sharing name and address information with a state agency, in such a special circumstance, can be such a violation of individual privacy to deny such an important request. And if privacy concerns are so pressing — can’t FEMA work out a procedure with the state of Louisiana to allow access to this critical information, so that they can make sure that voters displaced by Katrina know of their rights to cast absentee ballots, that insures that the information is used only for that purpose?

It seems that there must be a solution to both of these problems. And it sure sounds as if FEMA simply doesn’t want to be part of the solution to help protect the voting rights of Katrina-displaced voters. Unless FEMA reconsiders these decisions, it does seem that the best recourse will be for Louisiana to work with private organizations and election officials in other states to try to take some initial steps to rebuild the civic capacity of New Orleans.