Democrats Advance Effort to Secure Voting Privileges for Hurricane Victims

Posted October 12, 2005 at 3:57pm

A Democratic-led effort to ensure voting privileges for the displaced residents of the Gulf Coast region appears to be picking up steam in Congress, with legislation now filed in the House and Senate that would provide Hurricane Katrina refugees with the same voting privileges granted to other absentee residents.

The Displaced Citizens Voter Protection Act of 2005 was introduced in the House by Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) one month ago and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) dropped a similar version in the Senate last week. Davis and Feingold are planning to hold a news conference on Capitol Hill next week to highlight the legislation.

The bill would grant residents of hurricane-ravaged areas who have temporarily relocated to other addresses the ability to vote absentee — the same way college students, military personnel and overseas voters do — in the 2006 federal elections.

“There’s no question in my opinion that displaced voters, if they choose, should be able to participate in federal races in Louisiana and Mississippi if they intend to return to those states,” Davis said in an interview Wednesday.

The legislation specifies that voters would have to sign an affidavit certifying that they are qualified to vote in their original place of residence and that they plan to return to that residence in the near future.

“We must make sure that those who intend to return are given the opportunity to elect the federal leaders who will shape the recovery process,” Feingold said in a statement.

If passed, the bill would require motor vehicle authorities and voter registration agencies to inform residents of the absentee voter option. The bill applies only to federal elections held in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

Davis’ bill currently has 33 co-sponsors in the House, all of them Democrats and primarily members of the Congressional Black Caucus. It has been referred to the House Administration Committee.

Davis said that he has talked with some Republicans about the bill and that he is hopeful that the “good government” measure will eventually be able to garner bipartisan support.

“This should not be a partisan issue,” Davis said. “I think that it would be very unfortunate if there was a shift in the political alignment of these communities because of a natural disaster. That shouldn’t happen and I think it’s wrong.”

While Davis said he hopes that the bill will eventually get a hearing, he criticized what he characterized as the slow response of Congress so far in addressing Katrina-related issues.

“It’s not just enough to pass the supplemental [appropriation] and think our work is done,” Davis said. “There are a lot of specific, substantive issues that we need to deal with and this is one of them.”

While the legislation sponsored by Feingold and Davis would only apply to federal elections if it passed, Davis said he is hopeful that the individual state Legislatures would follow suit and pass similar measures addressing the needs of displaced voters.

The first test for local and state officials in dealing with evacuee voting issues is likely to come early next year, as New Orleans is slated to hold a mayoral election in February 2006.