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New Orleans election in 'uncharted waters'

Displaced voters, 21 mayoral candidates promise difficulty
Incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin says New Orleans residents don't need a new mayor amid reconstruction.


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New Orleans (Louisiana)

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- New Orleanians are trying to elect a mayor Saturday in a poll in which voters -- six in 10 of whom no longer reside in the city -- have to choose between 21 candidates.

"It's a major undertaking, to say the least," said Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater, whose office oversees election preparations. "I tell people we're in uncharted waters." (Watch the problems facing New Orleans election workers -- 2:14)

Polls opened at 6 a.m. local time (7 a.m. ET) and are set to close 14 hours later, but polling locations will be sparse after damage caused by Hurricane Katrina forced the city to limit stations to 76. There were 262 for the 2002 election.

Mail carriers will pick up some of the slack, as 16,000 voters have requested absentee ballots, 100 times those making the request four years ago.

Any displaced voter who hasn't registered in another city is eligible to cast a ballot, and Ater's office says New Orleans has roughly 298,000 registered voters.

The state also has set up 10 satellite polling stations around Louisiana for displaced residents. However, a federal judge shot down a proposal by civil rights groups to set up polling stations outside the state, in such cities as Atlanta, Georgia, and Houston, Texas, where many New Orleanians sought refuge after Katrina struck.

The civil rights groups argued that most of those still living outside Louisiana are black.

So, what's the tab for one of the most unusual elections of all time? About $4 million -- 10 times the normal cost.

Nagin draws crowd

Mayor Ray Nagin, the subject of criticism and praise during the city's rebuilding process, is one of the top contenders for the post he won in 2002. The 49-year-old former cable company executive won on a platform of fighting government corruption.

With recovery efforts well under way, his new platform is, "Now is not the time to change leadership." However, he will have to convince New Orleans that he is the best of 21 candidates for the post. (Watch how almost two dozen candidates are vying for Nagin's post -- 1:53)

Other leading candidates are Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and Ron Forman, a rookie politician with ties to the city's business community.

Landrieu, 45, is one of the best-known names in Louisiana politics. He has served in the state Legislature, is the brother of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and the son of Moon Landrieu, the New Orleans mayor through most of the 1970s.

Forman, 58, is president and CEO of the Audubon Nature Institute and is credited with overseeing the construction of the city's acclaimed zoo and aquarium. His wife, Sally, was Nagin's communications director until the week before her husband entered the mayoral race.

The remaining 18 candidates run the gamut of occupations and political backgrounds, but not political affiliation -- of the 21 candidates, only two are Republicans.

With so many candidates, it is unlikely that one of them will get more than the 50 percent of the votes needed to win the race uncontested. If no candidate wins a majority, a runoff will be held May 20 between the top two finishers.

CNN's John King, Robert Yoon and Molly Levinson contributed to this report.

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