Eight months after Hurricane Katrina, voters were weighing whether to re-elect Mayor Ray Nagin. But there was a problem: Many of the schools, churches and community centers used as voting centers still were uninhabitable.
Local and state officials came up with a solution: Consolidate voting at “mega-sites” that would handle voters for 30 to 50 precincts each.
Ten years later, many of those churches, schools and community centers have reopened. But there are still fewer voting locations than before the storm, and many voters must travel farther to cast a ballot.
New Orleans has lost more than half of its polling places since November 2004. There were 252 then; today there are 120.
In central New Orleans and the Lower 9th Ward, the average distance to a voting location has increased 50 percent since 2004.
Most of the changes came after Katrina, when tens of thousands of voters were living in exile. “Those polling places were no longer available,” said Arthur Morrell, clerk of Criminal Court and the city’s chief election official.
In the years since, many precincts have moved back to their former sites. St. Dominic School in Lakeview handled voting for 27 precincts in 2008; now it’s down to 13.
But even with a stabilized population, more polling places have been closed in the past few years. Ten have been eliminated since the 2012 presidential election.
New Orleans is not alone, according to a report released last week by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of national civil-rights groups. The report focuses on polling place closures since the 2012 presidential election, the last one before the U.S. Supreme Court nullified a part of the Voting Rights Act. It required the federal government to approve changes to voting rules in areas with a history of racial discrimination.
About 60 percent of parishes in Louisiana have closed polling places since 2012, said Scott Simpson, the report’s author. “Texas looks bad,” he said, “but in Texas, only half the counties closed polling places.”
Jefferson Parish closed 23, the most in the state and among the most in the country, according to the report. The reason: They weren’t handicapped-accessible.
Simpson said he’s concerned that Baton Rouge may see a permanent reduction in its polling places because of this summer’s flooding. Nineteen voting locations were moved for the election, affecting about 35,000 voters.
Flood damage is a “totally reasonable cause to reduce polling places, to consolidate them,” he said. “But what was done for an emergency becomes the status quo.”
That’s what happened in New Orleans. Polling places for 295 of the city’s 442 precincts were rendered unusable as a result of the flooding after Katrina.
We used Google software to calculate how long it would take to walk and drive from thousands of points in the city to their assigned voting locations, based on Google’s expected conditions at 8:30 a.m. on a weekday. We ran the same calculations for precincts and polling locations for the November 2004 election.
Sixteen percent of the city’s precincts have an average distance of more than a mile, compared to 8 percent in 2004.
The impact of the reduction in voting locations depends on where you live. Most Algiers residents travel the same distance as in 2004 — which makes sense, given that the West Bank didn’t flood.
On the whole, average distances haven’t risen in eastern New Orleans.
In the rest of the city — central New Orleans and the Lower 9th Ward — the average distance to polling places has increased 50 percent, from about a half-mile to seven-tenths of a mile.
In 2004, it took 10 minutes on average to walk to vote in those parts of the city. Now it’s 15 minutes. Driving time has gone from about 3 minutes to a little under 4 minutes.
Those changes may seem insignificant. But some researchers have found that small increases in distance can reduce turnout, especially among voters without cars. A 2005 study of Atlanta’s 2001 election found this when distances were increased just seven-tenths of a mile.
Enrico Cantoni, a Ph.D. candidate in economics at MIT, said even smaller distances can have a measurable, negative impact on turnout. According to Cantoni, increasing the distance to a polling place by a quarter of a mile can reduce total voter participation — including turnout and registration — by 2 to 5 percent.
In 13 New Orleans precincts, the average distance has increased at least a mile since 2004.
In 56 of the 351 precincts, voters travel an average of more than a mile to vote.
Sometimes that’s due to the shape of a precinct or where it’s located. One precinct, for example, generally includes City Park and a few blocks southwest. But it also covers Park Island on Bayou St. John, several miles away from the polling place on Canal Street.
Another precinct generally covers the New Orleans Country Club and Metairie Cemetery — except for a few residential blocks right off the 17th Street Canal. Those voters are about three miles from their polling place.
Kim Marshall is one of them. Before the storm, she and her neighbors walked to a neighbor’s garage to vote.
“Now you have to drive all the way to St. Dominic’s” in Lakeview, she said.
For her it’s just an inconvenience, but she worries that the distance discourages some of her elderly neighbors from voting. “I feel like they’re the ones who have a hard time getting over there.”
The 10 precincts that have seen the greatest increase in travel times include parts of the city that flooded the worst after the levees failed, such as Lakeview, Hollygrove, the Upper 9th Ward and eastern New Orleans.
Those 10 precincts are fairly representative of the city, racially and economically. They have slightly more African-American residents. They’re about as well-off as the rest of the city. More households have cars than the rest of the city: about 86 percent compared to 81 percent citywide.
Morrell said people sometimes complain “that they’d like to have their polling locations back where they were.” He said he forwards those complaints to the City Council. The council decides where to put polling locations, with input from his office.
We shared our findings with Council President Stacy Head; she didn’t have any comment other to say she couldn’t recall any complaints about voting locations.
Staff reporter Marta Jewson contributed to this story.