New Orleans Elections and the Civil War

As was reported today, the New Orleans city elections have been postponed until the Summer or Fall of 2006. This delay raises an interesting question about the role of government in facilitating elections during times of crisis.

When Mayor Ray Nagin suggested that the elections in New Orleans should go forward, because “voting during our regular cycle would further bring a sense of normalcy and empowerment to our citizens,” he was in part reflecting an attitude that has existed in America since the Civil War, when President Lincoln decided not to postpone federal elections during a time of internal war. Several historians have noted that Lincoln’s decision was not what would be expected; nations historically had not held elections in the midst of a civil war.

The difference between the Civil War and today is that, during the Civil War, the state and federal governments worked to adopt new voting schemes to address the problem. Expanded absentee voting and remote voting for military personnel in most states dates to the Civil War. Some states set up actual voting precincts in forward state militia positions so that soldiers could vote. Other states allowed military personnel to give a proxy to a third party.

In New Orleans, it is clear that the government response, especially at the federal level, was not working to facilitate the February election date. As the Washington Post noted, Louisiana Secretary of State Al “Ater laid much of the blame for the delay on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which he said has not provided any of the $2 million his office requested to repair voting machines damaged in the Aug. 29 storm and to upgrade New Orleans’s absentee voting system.”

The key issue now is how to facilitate voting for residents who, even 9 months from now, are still unable to live in New Orleans but plan to go back. One solution is to create, for this election, highly liberalized absentee voting rules, much like those used for military personnel and civilians stationed overseas. These voters–called UOCAVA voters for the Act that enfranchised them fully–can vote absentee in their last place of residence before they left the U.S. Perhaps former New Orleans residents should be given the same liberal absentee voting rights, even if they now are residents of another state.