By Myron Rogers, The Lens contributing opinion writer |
I’m new to Louisiana and its political and bureaucratic processes, but after my first Election Day in New Orleans, I can see why it suffers under such a notorious reputation, even today.
I went to vote at Isidore Newman School, around the corner from my home. I registered automatically when I traded my Illinois license for my Louisiana license at the end of April – or so I thought.
I went to the five precinct tables at the polls, and none of them had me registered. There were some really helpful women at one of the tables. They called the voter registry (or whatever they call this dandy little bureaucracy). They tried to explain, but seemed unable to be understood by the woman on the other end, so they gave the phone to me.
After some Laurel and Hardy routine of really misunderstanding me, the bureaucrat said I wasn’t registered. I said I had automatically registered in April when I got my license. She said, well, they must not have sent in the paperwork (which I heard as, “Geez, I have no idea why you aren’t registered. We or they or someone in between wasn’t doing their job, but I’m not saying it was me. It must be them…”). The words “I’m sorry” never passed her lips.
After a few troubling words about why I wasn’t registered, she offered that the process wasn’t automatic, that it was in fact an application process, and they (which “they,” I don’t know) never processed the application. We went round on this carousel for a while. She told me to fill out an application to vote and send it in. It would take 10 days to be processed. She also said I could do it on line (still 10 days), or come into the office in person, which would be faster. How much faster? Oh, fewer than 10 days. OK, I surrendered.
Then, the ladies at the check-in table told me to ask her what my ward and precinct would be. I asked, and entered into some surrealistic revisiting of Laurel and Hardy. I gave her my exact address on Soniat, and the conversation went something like this:
Would you tell me what my ward and precinct are?
Sir, you’re not registered. You don’t have a ward and precinct.
OK, but what would they be if I was registered.
Well, I could only guess.
Aren’t wards and precincts determined by one’s address?
Yes, they are.
Well, what would mine be for my specific address on Soniat?
Sir, you’re not a registered voter, so you don’t have a ward and precinct.
Ah, ah, well…OK, so what are the ward and precinct for this particular address?
Ward 10, Precinct 13.
OK sir, if you come in and register now, you should be able to vote in March.
There you go. Sometimes I catch myself complaining a bit too much about why so much doesn’t work in this really unique city – and most of what doesn’t work is unique to this city. I try to let go and understand the place.
But this incident is just too telling about the deep, down-to-the-DNA dysfunction of the place (and I despise the word “dysfunction”). Voter registration in the majority of the country is simple, painless, encouraging, and almost a reflexive, unconscious, streamlined, automatic event. My only explanation about what’s going on here is that this is the festering wound of Jim Crow. It has now infected the whole system with an overlay of mechanisms that, at best, make it difficult to vote and, at worst, encourages disenfranchisement and voter fraud (not prevent it).
There are so many self-inflicted issues in this city. People in conflict about doing something new that is already ingrained so many places. Transparency? Open government? Accountability? If we can’t get voter registration right, no wonder people are disengaged. I know I am…
So there’s my sunny Election Day story. I imagine folks who have lived here a long time hear so many more truly dispiriting tales of grief that this hardly matters.
But somehow it does.