CITIZENS of Toledo, who often can't be bothered to drive a few blocks to their polling places on Election Day, might take some inspiration from New Orleans voters who are going to great lengths to choose a new mayor.
In this case, great lengths is no exaggeration. It means hundreds or even thousands of miles.
Scattered across the U.S. by the winds of Hurricane Katrina last summer, New Orleanians have begun to return for early voting in the Crescent City's April 22 mayoral primary.
This truly is an election like no other because fewer than 200,000 of the city's 500,000 pre-storm residents have returned, and for many their ballot is both a temporary homecoming and a lifeline to their hopes for rebuilt lives.
Some of the displaced are voting by traditional absentee ballot but many thousands more are boarding buses or driving for hours from Georgia or Texas to cast early ballots at 12 satellite polling locations in cities around Louisiana. If no one gets a majority in the primary - there are 23 candidates in a colorful list, so that's likely - the top two candidates will compete in a runoff on May 20.
In the spicy cauldron that is New Orleans politics, anger and discord over plans to rebuild the city are major factors in the election.
The main target is the incumbent mayor, Ray Nagin, who made a national reputation - not all of it favorable - as the city first was overwhelmed by Katrina and then suffered the indignity of neglect at the hand of an indifferent federal government.
His major opponents include Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, son of a former mayor and brother of Louisiana's U.S. senator, and businessman Ron Forman, who spearheaded the city's zoo and aquarium.
At least as important as the candidates is the depth of loyalty for the city voiced by returning voters. "Everybody needs this election, to put in somebody who's going to do something for New Orleans, so people can start rebuilding," one woman told the New York Times.
In view of the adverse circumstances surrounding the election, and the outsized significance attached to it by voters eager to have their say, city and state officials are to be commended for coming up with a plan that will accommodate many, if not all, of New Orleans' widely scattered electorate.
The election should be a turning point in the rebirth of one of our great cities, a prospect most Americans should be able to support.
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