RAY SUAREZ: Linda Jeffers is scouring the city of Houston for voters.
LINDA JEFFERS, Metropolitan Organization: Hello.
RAY SUAREZ: A New Orleans resident displaced after Hurricane Katrina, Jeffers is determined to persuade other evacuees in Houston to vote in the upcoming New Orleans mayor's elections.
LINDA JEFFERS: You fill out your voter's registration form.
RAY SUAREZ: But, in order to do that from 300 miles away, evacuees must first contact the state of Louisiana and request an absentee ballot to vote by mail.
LINDA JEFFERS: They have got to vote. It's the first time we have an opportunity to have a voice in what's going to happen in New Orleans, the first time we have got an opportunity to say what we want to see happen, as far as rebuilding in New Orleans.
RAY SUAREZ: Like Jeffers, tens of thousands of New Orleans' potential voters are now living in Houston and cities across America.
LINDA JEFFERS: Yes, we are going to have a chance, the only chance you got a voice, right now.
RAY SUAREZ: Thomas Wells also canvasses Houston. He and Jeffers volunteer for the Metropolitan Organization, a nonpartisan group encouraging evacuees to be part of the April 22 election.
THOMAS WELLS, Metropolitan Organization: I'm very concerned that -- that we get the necessary people in that has our interest at hear, the people of New Orleans, because they want to go back. They want to rebuild. They want to see their lives put back together again, so it's very essential that we have people that -- in position that -- that hold our interests at heart.
RAY SUAREZ: Wells is a father of seven who lost his house in the Ninth Ward. His children have been temporarily placed in Houston schools. Wells said, for his family, the stakes in this mayor's race are monumental.
THOMAS WELLS: The needs that need to be addressed for me is basically the infrastructures, such as hospitals, health care, OK? The need for me is also jobs, because I don't have a job. I lost my job during that process. The need for me is school, education for my -- for my children. They was uprooted. There's no school system there.
RAY SUAREZ: Best estimates say just half the population of New Orleans is back. So, there may be as many potential voters living outside the city as in it. And the demographics of New Orleans have changed dramatically.
Because most evacuees are African-American, blacks no longer command a dominant voting majority, giving white candidates more political prospects. The upheaval has led to a mayor's race with 22 candidates, a number so unwieldy that many debates have had to be limited to top contenders only.
RAY NAGIN (D), Mayor of New Orleans: What is going on, young man?
RAY SUAREZ: Running in a half-empty city means New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin campaigns for reelection by greeting motorists in New Orleans one week...
RAY NAGIN: It's all good.
RAY SUAREZ: ... and making plans to attend mayoral debates in Atlanta or Houston the next.
RAY NAGIN: It's mission impossible. It really is. It's a local race with statewide scope and national scope. So, I'm all over the state. I'm local and I'm all over the state. And then I'm flying to various cities around the country.
RAY SUAREZ: Another candidate, Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, stumped in Houston.
LT. GOV. MITCH LANDRIEU (LA-D), New Orleans Mayoral Candidate: You try to find as much information as you can about where people are. And you go get them, however you can get there. If you can get there by telephone, you get there. If you can get there by mail, you get there. If you have got to go personally, you leave the state. I'm actually advertising in different media markets. And it's very strange.
RON FORMAN, New Orleans Mayoral Candidate: Along with Nagin and Landrieu, businessman Ron Forman has emerged as another mayoral front-runner.
RON FORMAN: We're all going to every city we can. A typical mayor's race might cost $1 million for a candidate. This race is probably going to cost about $2.5 million, because of the need to reach out across the country.
RAY SUAREZ: The state of Louisiana's election officials say they have tried to design this balloting in a way that kicks open the door as wide as possible to potential voters, so that, no matter where you used to live, whether or not you have made up your mind about whether you're coming back, and wherever you're living now, you should be able to have a voice in the future of the city.
AL ATER, Louisiana Secretary Of State: These are ballots that are going to be going to the Postal Service this evening.
RAY SUAREZ: Secretary of State Al Ater says his office has spent $4 million, 10 times more than usual, on getting displaced voters the information they need to vote. Using postal change of address requests and FEMA documents, his staff has sent out 700,000 packets of voter information.
WOMAN: Secretary of state, elections division. May I help you?
RAY SUAREZ: His office helped pass sweeping legislation that includes one week of early voting that started this week, creates polling centers in metro areas across the state of Louisiana, allows first-time voters to vote absentee, and accepts absentee ballots up until the day of the election.
AL ATER: I think it's a very important first step, if you will, before rebuilding of that very important city to our state, and I believe to America, can really get started. You know, they're kind of in purgatory. They're just kind of sitting around. There's billions of dollars, thanks to the federal government and to the state government, that are earmarked for this rebuilding effort, but -- but they don't have a legitimately elected mayor or town council or any of the other leaders that are going to make decisions that will affect how those billions are spent.
It's your voice. Vote.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
RAY SUAREZ: But Ater's office and the legislature have come under intense criticism.
BEN EDWARDS: I believe that there is injustice by having the elections so early on, with so many people displaced.
MAN: All together, I ain't going to take it no more.
AUDIENCE: I ain't going to take it no more.
RAY SUAREZ: National civil rights leaders have called on the state to delay the election, charging that African-Americans, the overwhelming number of evacuees, are being shut out of the process.
REVEREND JESSE JACKSON, Founder, Rainbow/Push Coalition: All citizens...
AUDIENCE: All citizens...
JESSE JACKSON: ... not refugees...
AUDIENCE: ... not refugees...
JESSE JACKSON: ... have the right...
AUDIENCE: ... have the right...
JESSE JACKSON: ... the protected right...
AUDIENCE: .... the protected right...
JESSE JACKSON: ... to vote.
RAY SUAREZ: In a protest march earlier this month, participants chided the state for not having places for evacuees in cities outside Louisiana to cast their vote on Election Day.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: If an Iraqi can vote in Salt Lake City for elections in Iraq and people in New Orleans can't vote for an election in the city of New Orleans, living in Salt Lake City, something wrong with that picture.
WOMAN: Hi. How are you doing? My name is Stacy (ph) from ACORN.
RAY SUAREZ: And, earlier this year, a low-income housing group, ACORN, sued to force Louisiana officials to set up polling centers in other states with displaced residents.
WOMAN: Hi. How you doing?
RAY SUAREZ: But a federal judge ruled against them. Still, believing the mail-in absentee process to be too cumbersome, ACORN and others are providing buses to transport voters from neighboring states like Texas. The criticism has even led some residents to call the mayor's race a whitewashing of the city, since black voters no longer outnumber white voters currently living in the city.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: I don't care how you look it. It's deliberate, because, if they can do that for Iraq, you sure enough can do this for American citizens. It's deliberate.
RAY SUAREZ: Al Ater says the numbers show, his office is in fact reaching voters, African-American voters, with out-of-state ads in papers, on TV, and in the mail.
AL ATER: I think that there has been an unprecedented effort made by this state to make certain that displaced voters, primarily African-American displaced voters, are not adversely affected by Hurricane Katrina, and make certain that they are afforded the opportunity to participate in this race.
And, quite candidly, I think our -- our efforts are paying dividends. We have had about 13,000, 14,000 requests for absentee ballots. We're still three-and-a-half weeks out. They're coming in at 300 to 1,000 per day. And, to date, those requests are running about 3-to-1 from African-Americans.
RAY SUAREZ: Mayor Nagin won four years ago with substantial support from white voters. This year, polls show the white vote may be shifting to white candidates. Nagin says he's campaigning for votes from all citizens and dismisses suggestions that he's looking more for support from the black community this time by appearing at civil rights forums and referring to New Orleans as a chocolate city.
RAY NAGIN: You know, it has always been kind of a chocolate city, depending upon which flavor you like.
RAY SUAREZ: For displaced voter Alfred Williams, who returned to his Eighth Ward house for a week of repairs, all that matters is coming home. Williams will vote absentee from Indiana and return to New Orleans as soon as he can.
ALFRED WILLIAMS, New Orleans Voter: New Orleans is my home. And I wants to come back home. As a matter of fact, I'm going to come back home. I'm coming back home. This -- this is all I -- I know. This is all I got.
RAY SUAREZ: And New Orleans displaced voter John Williams says he worries about changing leadership when so much is at stake. Williams says he will pull the lever for Mayor Ray Nagin.
MD-BO¯JOHN WILLIAMS, New Orleans Voter: I don't see me changing and put nobody else in office who really don't know what they doing, and this man, he has been handling the job all this time. I can't see taking him out now.
VAL CONNOLLY, New Orleans Voter: Thank you.
RAY SUAREZ: The same logic works in reverse for voter Val Connolly, who voted for Nagin four years ago, but now will choose someone else.
VAL CONNOLLY: Unfortunately for Mr. Nagin, the disaster happened, and he was sort of lost at sea. He was by himself. And I -- I feel bad for him, but that's part of being a leader.
RAY SUAREZ: With so many candidates in the race, no one candidate is expected to garner the 50 percent, plus one vote, needed to win outright on April 22. A run-off between the top two favorites is expected to be scheduled for May.