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Perfect Storm 

Hurricane-season elections, a string of missteps in the clerk's office and an evacuated electorate. Was catastrophe inevitable on Sept. 18?

By Friday evening, 73-year-old voting commissioner Doris Huntsberry knew that Saturday's primary election was headed toward disaster. First, her two voting machines didn't show up at her house on Flake Street during the scheduled delivery window, between 1 and 6 p.m. So she called the warehouse -- again and again, she says. "And they kept telling me, 'They're coming; they're coming.'"

It seems unlikely that her machines were en route for 17 hours, says Huntsberry, who ended up watching the sun rise from a chair in her living room. "I was really upset, sitting up all night, waiting," she says. "And there's no way that the machines arrived and I wasn't here, because I was here all day."

The state-mandated deadline for delivery is 5:30 a.m. At 6 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 18, Huntsberry opened the door to her house -- the Ninth Ward's 36th Precinct -- just like she's done for a quarter-century. But she had no voting machines, and no explanations. "People were confused," she says. "And I couldn't tell them anything." All she could do was encourage potential voters to come back, hoping the drivers would eventually materialize, which they did, at 11 a.m., says Huntsberry. "They didn't give an excuse, just said that they were running late."

Other drivers were also "running late." In the end, voters in nearly 1 in 5 precincts citywide were hampered by late voting-machine deliveries.

By noon, the situation became clear to anyone passing Pontchartrain Baptist Church on Old Hammond Highway, just before the 17th Street Canal and the Jefferson Parish line. In front of the red-brick church, Secretary of State Fox McKeithen -- the state's chief elections officer -- was getting out of a blue-and-white moving truck. Sweat on his brow, he pulled open the back doors. He rolled several heavy voting machines down a steep ramp. He then predicted to reporters present that lawsuits would arise as a result of the late deliveries and promised that he and state Attorney General Charles Foti would launch a thorough investigation into the matter.

At her own press conference on Mon. Sept. 20, Clerk of Court Kimberly Williamson Butler -- the city's chief elections official -- questioned the abilities of Covan World-Wide Moving Inc., the state contractor for voting-machine deliveries. She would repeat that criticism of Covan in another press conference later in the week, on Thursday. Gambit Weekly, in discussions with safety officials, found that Covan's drivers, many of whom worked at least 18 hours on Friday, may have stretched federal trucking regulations governing the length of continuous shifts. (See sidebar, "Moving Violations?")

In her view, Butler told reporters on Monday, the precinct delivery schedule had been derailed by Hurricane Ivan, which had threatened the city and prompted a bumper-to-bumper evacuation during the week leading up to the election. Butler said that she had beseeched McKeithen to delay the election, but that he had forged ahead, citing Louisiana law that requires elections to be held "if at all possible." Former state elections commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell defends McKeithen's insistence on holding the Sept. 18 primary. "To postpone an election is the action of last resort -- it doesn't make anyone happy," Haik Terrell says.

People familiar with the clerk's office operations say that Hurricane Ivan and Covan are convenient scapegoats, but that the state needs to focus on Butler's office and its abilities. A few former clerk's office employees look at the lists of missed deliveries and shake their heads. "This is too many precincts, all over the city," says one ex-employee. "They -- the clerk's office -- just didn't know what they were doing."

Unlike Hurricane Ivan, they say, this catastrophe's path was clear weeks ago, when the clerk's office began missing deadlines and printing out misinformation.

MIDDAY ON SATURDAY, NEW ORLEANIANS -- at least those who had returned home after evacuating -- began to understand the scope of the problem, as local TV stations broadcast footage of McKeithen behind the wheel of the 18-wheel moving truck filled with voting machines. State Rep. Ed Murray, D-New Orleans, a political ally, rode shotgun, helping McKeithen deliver machines to a Lakeview precinct six hours after the polls were supposed to open.

The tale of the rural white Republican and the black urban Democrat trucking around the city together on Election Day is probably guaranteed a place in Louisiana political folklore. Upon arrival at the Pontchartrain Baptist Church, the secretary of state greeted reporters and told them that the Covan moving company was trying to have him arrested for stealing their truck.

Pontchartrain Baptist Church, a one-story red brick church with a white steeple, is the polling place for two vote-rich 17th Ward precincts, 19 and 21. More than 1,500 voters are registered to cast ballots at these precincts, in a neighborhood renowned for its "chronic" voting.

On this primary election day, McKeithen stepped from the cab of the truck wearing a red shirt, blue jeans and a baseball cap bearing his name and a caricature of a fox. Murray's white pullover sports shirt bore a tiny seal of the Louisiana Legislature.

The two elected officials rolled five voting machines down a ramp and into an anteroom of the church. Inside, several voters, apparently elderly and obviously angry, quickly lined up to vote.

Wiping machine grime off his hands, Murray talked with Gambit Weekly about the late ballot boxes while McKeithen, swabbing sweat from his forehead, stepped onto the front lawn of the church to speak with TV reporters. When asked about angry voters, he said that he was angry too. "I'm out here delivering voting machines," he drawled. "I should be drinking lemonade and watching TV."

A Times-Picayune editorial published that morning had called McKeithen "irresponsible" and an "armchair meteorologist" because he had criticized the mass evacuation from New Orleans as premature. Now, a television reporter held a microphone in front of the secretary of state. Did the hurricane have anything to do with the delayed deliveries?

McKeithen gave the reporter a solemn look and paused. "I don't think so," he said. "We've had great weather for three days."

Early this morning, however, he had walked into a storm already in progress. McKeithen reportedly was called to the voting-machine warehouse at 8870 Chef Menteur Hwy. between 5:15 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. A clerk's office employee who did not wanted to be named told Gambit Weekly that McKeithen had received a phone call tipping him off. "The warehouse guys called Fox," said the employee. "They wanted to let him know we were having problems."

Big problems.

When McKeithen arrived, the 5:30 a.m. delivery deadline was minutes away. But 106 voting machines were still loaded in a small flotilla of trucks, awaiting delivery.

Early on, media reports had noted that Covan employees, who had spent all day delivering machines, knocked off at 3 a.m. to shower and eat. They were expected back at 5 a.m., but no one had returned.

McKeithen sized up the situation, made unsuccessful attempts to contact Covan at its headquarters in Alabama, then grabbed a New Orleans map and got behind the wheel of a truck himself. After five hours of driving and delivering, he'd arrived at his last stop -- the front yard of Pontchartrain Baptist.

He wiped his forehead and uttered a line he would repeat for reporters several times that day: "I've never been to a rodeo like this one!"

That night inside the church, the polls closed at 8 p.m. as scheduled -- no extensions. They'd received ballots from more than 500 of the 1,500 precincts' registered voters, one commissioner said. Official returns would show a 31 percent turnout for the 21st Precinct and 36 percent for the 19th Precinct.

Those turnout rates seemed robust in comparison to the citywide turnout estimates of 25 percent. But the commissioner, a slight, gray-haired woman, still felt compelled to apologize. "We didn't get our machines until noon," she said, ruefully.

ONA RECENT SUNDAY AFTERNOON in the Faubourg Marigny, two men seated on steps say they hadn't voted, but they gesture across the street where their neighbor, Mike Rousey, is unlatching his side gate. He hadn't personally tried to vote until late afternoon, he says, but his wife, Terri, had traveled to their polling place at Charles J. Colton Middle School three times -- once at 8 a.m., again at 11 a.m., then at 3 p.m.

After the second time, she called the clerk's office. "They told her they didn't know when the machines would show up," says Rousey. "She said, 'What about 2 o'clock?' and he said that it'd be a safe bet."

On the red-leather bar stools inside the Friendly Lounge, located on the corner of Chartres and Marigny streets, customers gripe up a storm. One man who asked not to be named knew the situation well, having worked a 15-hour day at the Colton School polls. "I arrived to work at 5:30 a.m.," he says, "and we had no machines. All we could say was, 'They're coming.'" The bartender, Marty Curtin, pipes in. "He got no call. Some bastard should've called them."

Curtin herself attempted to vote around 10 a.m., even though she faced a trip to Bay St. Louis that weekend to check on some hurricane-battered property there. "I stayed in town Friday night. Stayed to vote," she says. After her attempt in the morning, she got in the car and drove to Bay St. Louis -- without casting her ballot. "I did not go back; I did not vote," she says. "And I vote every time. I think it was terrible."

The mix-up was especially discouraging to local groups who spent months registering voters in town. "We've been helping people register to vote since June," says Gwen Carrier, the director of Voices for Working Families. The organization had registered people, called them and congratulated them for registering, then phoned before the election to remind them that their vote is valuable.

Now a lot of their work seems for naught. "We were going good; people were very receptive," says Carrier. "But now we're hearing lots of negatives. People are saying, 'What's the use? The machines don't even come.'"

Similar sentiments came from the local chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). "People were disgusted," says organizer Beth Butler. For months now, ACORN workers have been walking the city's neighborhoods with voter-registration forms on clipboards. Now they predict that the primary's confusion will be mirrored in the upcoming general elections. "There's a sense that we're going to have problems on November 2," says Butler.

As a result, ACORN, along with other local grassroots groups and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice on Friday. In the complaint, they asked for a Justice Department investigation into the events of Sept. 18 and requested federal observers to monitor the November elections in Orleans Parish. They're also putting out feelers for any people who were thwarted from voting in the primary through a hotline: 1-866-OUR-VOTE.

LDF associate counsel Alaina Beverly says that many voters and candidates would like to see the results scrapped and the election run anew. "If they don't re-do the election, we are hoping that they at least put a full investigation into what exactly happened, what exactly went wrong, who is responsible, and take them to task in advance of the November election. Because we don't want to want to see this type of scenario ever again."

ALL DAY SATURDAY, voters arriving at Alfred Lawless High School sought out Colonial Saulter. "A lot of them came in here and said, 'We're glad our machines are here. Thank you,'" says Saulter, who's been the head custodian at Lawless for 21 years.

Saulter had waited at the school until 1:30 a.m., when the truck carrying the voting machines arrived. His delivery window on Friday had been between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., he says, something he found out not from the clerk's office but from a buddy who's a custodian at Edison Elementary School. "I didn't get any notice -- still haven't gotten it," says Saulter. "But I knew the importance of the election, so I made sure I was there."

Like other voting custodians, Saulter is paid $75 to receive delivery of the machines on Friday, open and close the polls on election Saturday, and then oversee the pickup of the machines by the clerk's office on Sunday. When the machines didn't arrive on Friday afternoon, he says, he called the clerk's office multiple times and was told on each occasion that his machines were "on the way."

At one point, around midnight, a friend of his called to tell him that a delivery truck had just pulled up to the nearby Sanchez Community Center, where the driver couldn't find anyone to receive the machines. Saulter says he drove over there and was told that the machines destined for Lawless were on that truck, behind the 12 machines designated for Sanchez. "But the drivers didn't want to take those 12 machines off the truck and deliver mine," Saulter says. So Saulter waited while the truck went back to the warehouse in eastern New Orleans, dropped off the machines intended for Sanchez and then returned to the Ninth Ward to deliver the machines to Lawless.

At that point, the drivers told him that they had spent two and three hours waiting for people to show up at certain polling places. "I was one of the fortunate ones that stood," says Saulter. "But I won't ever go through that again." Whoever organized the deliveries dropped the ball, he says. "My take is, they're not together."

Saulter is not the only one reaching that conclusion. People familiar with the operations of the clerk's office say that when the newly elected Butler cleaned house earlier this year, firing 10 of 12 administrative staff, she left no one who truly knew how to prepare for an election. "The clerk of court has the ability, because these are political positions, to hire whomever she pleases. She exercised that right," says John Musser IV, president of the Board of Election Supervisors for Orleans Parish. Yet a new staff means new challenges, he says. "It's a balancing act. You want to bring in your own people, and yet you also want to retain enough institutional knowledge about how to do things."

Butler's office admits that it waited until the Monday before the election to send out notifications to voting custodians, a mailing that typically is sent two weeks in advance. the office didn't begin to make routine reminder calls to those custodians until Thursday. Unnamed sources confirm that the clerk's office also failed to contact the company in charge of the public school custodians to get updated contact information. Staffers terminated in January and February had already put the groundwork in place for the March election, they say, but for the September election, much of the work was left undone.

Faced with severe backlogs and no guidance from the clerk's office, drivers simply gave up. Or so it seems, say some former employees of the clerk's office as they scanned the late-machine list last week. Look, they say, at the Ninth Ward precincts 41c and 42, which operate out of Engine 37 and Engine 4. "The only way that fire stations close is because of a fire or because they make a run to the grocery store or something," says one ex-employee. If that's the case, help is just a telephone call away. "You call (fire department) headquarters on Decatur Street and they get on the radio and get someone back there in a few minutes." At those times, the criminal sheriff's deputies who accompanied the trucks were a big help, because they could get on the radio to report and troubleshoot. "You have ear contact," one ex-employee explains.

Once Butler took office, however, the delivery trucks were no longer accompanied by deputies. Interim Sheriff William Hunter confirms that his office had provided those deputies for years but that stopped once Butler's tenure began. Reasons for this are unclear; last Friday, Butler declined further comment on specifics, citing the attorney general's investigation.

Also on the missed-delivery list are round-the-clock nursing homes and longtime private homes like Doris Huntsberry's that have been reached without a hitch in past elections. If residents required a second visit during one election, the owners often gave the clerk's office a key to their garage, a phone number at their mother's house, or a beeper or cell-phone number. Solutions like these made the deliveries fairly smooth -- in past years, only 10 to 12 locations were missed on the first delivery attempt. Most were reached on the second visit. "Seldom did we go back for a third try," says a former employee.

BUTLER'S NEW STAFF MADE several other notable missteps. Gambit Weekly could find no candidates who had been notified, as required by state statute, that they were able to inspect the voting machines or the absentee-voting machines before they were sealed.

At pre-election classes for commissioners on Feb. 25 and Feb. 26, Butler's office distributed error-ridden materials, prompting a letter from Musser. "There are numerous errors and typographical mistakes that need correction," he wrote in a Feb. 27 letter. "If the procedures are followed as given in the Special Instructions, Republicans will be unable to vote for any Republican candidate when they enter a voting a machine." Musser requested that the documents be corrected before a Feb. 28 class.

Currently, there's no good estimate of how many voters tried to vote but couldn't. Many commissioners report sizeable numbers of voters who came once but then, because of work or family obligations, couldn't return to actually vote on a machine. Commissioner Nettie Jones, who worked at Engine House 37, said that only 19 voters came to her precinct before her machines arrived. Only when the driver opened the back of the truck did she realize how lucky she was. "It was 8:45 (a.m.)," says Jones, "but the driver's truck was full."

on Rampart Street wasn't set up when 39-year-old Treme resident Dwayne Chapman walked over to vote around 10:30 on Saturday morning.

It was really no big deal, says Chapman, shrugging his shoulders. "When they said they machines were coming, I just thought it was too early. So I went back around 6:30 and voted."

To him, an extra trip to the polls seemed minor. "People worked harder than this to get the vote," he says, talking about the civil rights struggles that he witnessed as a young child. What worries him is the sheer scale of the problem. "When you hear how many people couldn't vote, your mind starts to wonder."

Every piece of the process should be investigated, Chapman asserts. But right now, he believes, officials need to stop bickering and pointing fingers and simply decide: Should this election be null and void? Waiting until every fact is in place sounds good, he says, but it will only impede the Nov. 2 general election, now only six weeks away.

"If you feel we should re-do the election, let's re-do it soon," says Chapman. "If I'm a candidate and I really and truly won, I'll win again."

click to enlarge EILEEN LOH HARRIST
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