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Louisiana repeals discriminatory voting law; SPLC to withdraw lawsuit

Less than a month after the SPLC and the Fair Elections Legal Network (FELN) filed suit over a state law that discriminated against naturalized citizens registering to vote, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has signed legislation repealing the law – effectively resolving the lawsuit.

The bill signed last week immediately repeals a statute that required naturalized citizens to provide proof of their U.S. citizenship when registering to vote, a requirement that was not asked of U.S.-born voters who simply had to swear that they are citizens.

The SPLC and FELN will withdraw their lawsuit. Voter registration drives thwarted by the statute will resume in communities with many naturalized citizens, such as the Vietnamese-American, Latino and Muslim communities in the greater New Orleans area.

“The governor’s action means that naturalized citizens will no longer be treated like second-class citizens when they register to vote in Louisiana,” said Naomi Tsu, SPLC deputy legal director. “We are pleased that the state moved swiftly to ensure all voters have equal access to the ballot box.”

Louisiana law requires all registrants to swear they are citizens when completing voter registration forms. Under the repealed statute, however, naturalized citizens would later receive a letter demanding that they provide proof of citizenship, such as a certificate of naturalization or a U.S. passport.

“Louisiana’s state election officials and legislators realized that this 142-year-old, discriminatory requirement was legally and morally indefensible, and we applaud their commonsense decision to repeal it,” said Jon Sherman, counsel at FELN. “Ultimately, the credit for this victory goes to the naturalized citizens and community groups who stood up for their rights under the Constitution.”

Notice of the requirement was nonexistent or buried. The state’s voter registration form did not state that naturalized citizens must provide documentation. The website for Louisiana’s secretary of state also failed to mention the requirement. The obstacles created by the requirement prevented many people from voting for decades and, most recently, in the 2016 presidential primary.

The lawsuit, filed on May 4, described how the requirement violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment by singling out naturalized citizens. It also violated Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the National Voter Registration Act.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three naturalized citizens who attempted to register to vote a collective eight times but were prevented by this requirement, and VAYLA New Orleans, a nonprofit organization that has attempted to register voters. Since its founding, VAYLA faced significant difficulties as it sought to register naturalized citizens and help them comply with the onerous requirement to provide citizenship documentation. There are approximately 72,250 naturalized citizens living in Louisiana.

“Naturalized citizens in Louisiana have been disenfranchised by this outdated statute for too long,” said Minh Nguyen, executive director of VAYLA. “This is a step forward in ensuring that all people have access to meaningful opportunities for civic engagement and the electoral process.”

The repeal of the statute will also enable PUENTES|LatiNOLA, a Latino community group, to register far more of their members.

“Registering to vote is the culmination of a long and exciting road towards U.S. citizenship for many American immigrants,” said Carolina Hernandez, PUENTES|LatiNOLA executive director. “By repealing this discriminatory requirement, Louisiana is no longer systematically blocking U.S. citizens from exercising their most fundamental right as citizens: voting.”