Obstacles remain in coast vote

Obstacles remain in coast vote

JACKSON – Hurricane Katrina appears to have created a political energy among Mississippi Gulf Coast voters, but residents there may face a slew of obstacles in the upcoming primary.

One Katrina victim, Long Beach resident Dale Yeager, said coastal residents would vote “in a wheelbarrow” if they had to.

“Voting is probably more important, by far, than it ever has been for me,” said Yeager, who had harsh words for the federal government and its failure to adequately respond to the devastation.

Voter turnout is expected to be light on the coast for the state’s June 6 primary, with little more to attract voters than a U.S. Senate Democratic primary to pick a candidate to face Republican U.S. Sen. Trent Lott.

Election organizers on the Coast could use the light showing because this will be the first time new electronic voting machines will be used. The new touchscreen machines are in 77 of the state’s 82 counties.

In Harrison County, 17 of the 66 precincts were damaged or destroyed. The county is waiting for clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice to consolidate precincts.

Notices will go out to voters in consolidated precincts, although county officials will be limited in reaching residents displaced because of Katrina.

Training on the state’s new touchscreen voting machines, however, has been going well, said Connie Ladner, Harrison County chief deputy circuit clerk.

“I don’t anticipate any problems with the machines. I’m sure there will be people voting who, of course, won’t be comfortable voting on the touchscreens, but I believe once they do, they’ll like it,” said Ladner.

In Hancock County, 18 of 26 precincts were damaged or destroyed. Instead of consolidating precincts, the county is bringing in 18 mobile units for voters, with the help of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Here, so many people did lose their homes and things, we didn’t want to throw any more confusion in than what was already there,” said Karen Ruhr, Hancock County chief deputy circuit clerk.

Problems have surfaced in Jackson County, where Democratic Executive Committee Chairman Melton Harris has insisted on using paper ballots instead of the new machines purchased to comply with new federal election requirements under the Help America Vote Act.

Harris, who has been at the helm since 1988 and has been running primaries since 1991, said he knows from past trends that voter turnout will be light next month – fewer than 2,000 people. Katrina also contributes to the low estimate.