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Discriminatory voter registration requirement in Louisiana leads to SPLC lawsuit

Louisiana is discriminating against naturalized citizens by requiring them to provide citizenship documents when registering to vote – a requirement that is not asked of other potential voters who must simply swear that they are U.S. citizens, according to an SPLC lawsuit filed today.

The federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of three naturalized citizens who must meet the requirement, which dates back to 1874. VAYLA New Orleans, a nonprofit organization that has attempted to register voters, is also a plaintiff. The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana. A motion for a preliminary injunction also has been filed to put this requirement on hold as the case proceeds.

“By enforcing this outdated requirement, Louisiana is saying that naturalized citizens are second-class citizens and cannot be trusted,” said Naomi Tsu, SPLC deputy legal director. “These potential voters have already sworn that they are citizens as part of the registration process. The state is blocking eligible voters from the ballot box and ultimately weakening democracy.”

The lawsuit describes how the requirement violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment by singling out naturalized citizens. This practice also violates Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the National Voter Registration Act, according to the lawsuit.

Under Louisiana law, all registrants must swear they are citizens when completing voter registration forms. These forms do not state that naturalized citizens must provide documentation. The website for Louisiana’s secretary of state also fails to mention this requirement. After registering to vote, a letter is sent to these potential voters demanding that they provide proof of citizenship, such as a U.S. passport or a certificate of naturalization.

There are approximately 72,250 naturalized citizens living in Louisiana. Voter registration groups, such as VAYLA New Orleans, have faced difficulties as they have registered naturalized citizens only for these potential voters to discover later that they must provide documentation. The obstacles created by this requirement have already prevented many people from voting in the 2016 presidential primary.

“The undue burden this law places on naturalized citizens resonates deeply within our community in New Orleans East,” says Minh Nguyen, executive director of VAYLA New Orleans. “It’s demoralizing that our parents and grandparents work so hard to become citizens and yet are still treated unfairly.”

The Fair Elections Legal Network is serving as the SPLC’s co-counsel on the case.