By Professor Karissa Haugeberg
I moved to New Orleans from Iowa City last year. In Iowa City, a town with 68,000 residents, I could choose to vote early at one of 12 early voting sites, which included libraries, grocery stores, and public buildings located throughout town. In contrast, New Orleans’s 360,000 residents had only three early voting sites.
One location would have required me to pay to park. I would have had to take a toll bridge or ferry to another location. The third site was a full ten miles from the center of town. The city’s most densely populated neighborhoods, including Uptown, had no early voting sites. Residents who can no longer drive or who cannot afford public transportation were shut out of early voting sites altogether.
On Tuesday morning, I made my way to the Eleanor McMain Secondary School, where the intersection in front of the school has been closed since Saturday due to a water main break. The City’s Water and Sewage Board had promised that the street in front of the school would reopen in time for Election Day. They retracted the promise last night.
When I entered McMain, I was struck by all of the signs warning that Louisiana state law restricts voters to three minutes in the voting booth. As I waited in line, I reread the sample ballot I’d brought with me, and wondered if I —- someone who reads hours each day for her job -— could have read each of the nine proposed Constitutional amendments, tax extension initiatives, and judicial, Congressional, and Presidential candidates in less than three minutes.
According to U.S. Census data and city property tax records, I live in a predominantly working-class, African American precinct that has a large elderly population. While I stood in line for over an hour waiting to vote, residents of other precincts breezed in and out of the polling site. One man shouted, “You people live in the wrong precinct!” as he exited the building. I couldn’t help but wonder if our wait would have been shorter if residents from my neighborhood had been able to vote early.
I didn’t let the twelve-foot pile of gravel sitting in front of the school prevent me from casting my ballot. But in the State of Louisiana, where in the recent past, African Americans were intimidated from exercising the right to vote through poll taxes, literacy tests, and threats of violence, we must ensure that new forms of voter suppression and intimidation do not replace older, illegal tactics. We should not have to pay for parking in order to vote early. We should not have to take a toll bridge to vote early. We should not have to drive ten miles to vote early. And we should not have to worry about exceeding a three-minute time limit in order to consider the options presented on the ballot.
I hope that next year, Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Shedler and the Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters Sandra Wilson will ensure that all voters in this wonderful city can exercise their full rights of citizenship by voting early if they so choose.
Karissa Haugeberg is a professor in the Tulane University Department of History.