Stories from the field: SPLC works with immigrant community to repeal discriminatory voting law

I have been trying to register to vote for four years. Can you help?

This was the question Norma Flores asked me in February. The frustration and anger in her voice was palpable. Norma, a native of Honduras, has lived in the United States since 1993. After becoming a citizen in 2008, she voted for several years in Pennsylvania.

But that changed when she moved to Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish and was unable to register. It wasn’t for lack of trying: Norma submitted a voter registration form three times.

An antiquated law dating to 1874 stood between her and the ballot box. The law required all naturalized citizens to provide citizenship documents after completing a voter registration form – a requirement that was not asked of U.S.-born voters, who simply had to swear that they are U.S. citizens.

In other words, Louisiana was discriminating against every naturalized citizen in the state by asking for this additional proof of citizenship.

Norma learned about the requirement when she attempted to register for the third time. She received a letter from the Jefferson Parish Registrar of Voters office that was confusing and intimidating. It said her application would be rejected unless she showed her U.S. passport or naturalization certificate within 10 days. Remarkably, she didn’t even receive the letter – or any notification about the requirement – during her first two attempts.

Across the greater New Orleans area, community groups operating voter registration drives and programs in immigrant communities witnessed the toll the law was taking. Dozens of their members were being kept off the voter rolls.

Norma, a proud mother of six and the full-time caretaker for her infant grandson, was under no illusion as to why she was having trouble registering in Louisiana: It was because she is an immigrant. She told me that it was clear to her that Louisiana did not value her in the same way it did those born in the United States.

But she was not deterred.

Norma cherishes the right to vote. The first time I met her in person, she radiated determination. She made it clear that there was no way she was not going to vote in November.

That’s why she agreed to work with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Fair Elections Legal Network. She joined a lawsuit the groups filed this past May to end the proof of citizenship requirement.

Less than a month later, they would see their efforts pay off when Gov. John Bel Edwards signed legislation repealing the law. Naturalized citizens can now register to vote in a simpler and fairer way – like other U.S. citizens in Louisiana.

I knew Norma was excited about the victory, but I didn’t understand what it meant to her until I went to her house as she prepared for a television interview. As I sat down at her living room table, my arm brushed against a cluster of balloons. Norma grinned.

“They’re from my birthday party this week,” she said. “All my family came over. I told them all about our victory. I helped change a racist law and made it easier for immigrant citizens to register to vote … and I am getting interviewed on TV!”

Norma is not only excited about being a voter again, she’s eager to help register her family. There are five naturalized citizens in her immediate family alone. She’s also glad that she could set an example for her children by refusing to sit quietly in the face of injustice. When Norma goes to the poll this November, I hope she is joined by many other naturalized citizens ready to cast their ballots.

Jenna Finkle is a bilingual outreach paralegal in the SPLC’s Louisiana office.