Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law HB890 on June 1, which, among other things, repealed a 142-year-old Louisiana law that required a higher standard of documentation for naturalized citizens to register to vote than natural-born citizens.
“This law [RS 18:105(B) and (C)] dates back to 1874,” VAYLA New Orleans executive director Minh Thanh Nguyen told NBC News. “It is outdated and appears to be the only one of its kind in the United States.”
On May 4, a group of nonprofit organizations — VAYLA New Orleans, Puentes New Orleans, Southern Poverty Law Center, Fair Elections Legal Network — and three plaintiffs came together to file a lawsuit in Louisiana Middle District Court against the Louisiana Secretary of State and Commissioner of Elections. The lawsuit, VAYLA New Orleans et al v. Schedler et al, alleged that RS 18:105(B) and (C) discriminated against naturalized citizens in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the National Voter Registration Act.
Two weeks later, the Louisiana legislature passed House Bill HB890 with an amendment repealing the law entirely.
Nguyen said that VAYLA New Orleans has been registering voters since 2006, following Hurricane Katrina, as a way to help empower the Vietnamese-American community in Louisiana. The organization also helped translate voter registration forms into Vietnamese, held citizenship classes, included voting curriculum in English as a second language classes, and created radio announcements about voting. Nguyen estimated that VAYLA registered half of the eligible Asian American voters in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes.
However, in 2012, the now repealed law began to be enforced.
“Before the 2012 general election, the Orleans Voter Registrar’s Office told me that now [naturalized citizens] have to start showing proof of citizenship,” Nguyen said. “Each [naturalized citizen] registering had to come downtown to the Voter Registrar’s Office to show their proof of citizenship, in person, and that really cut the whole process of registering voters.” Citizens born in the United States did not have to prove citizenship.
“I drove about 40 people to City Hall, individually," Nguyen added. "It took so much time and so much resources, all from VAYLA.”
Nguyen detailed citizens needing to take time off of work to go to the Voter Registrar’s Office, elders who physically struggled to walk, and others with limited English proficiency who might not understand the instructions in the letter from the Voter Registrar’s Office or who might be intimidated by the additional and unpublished documentation requirements.
“We saw this injustice that affects primarily our parents’ and grandparents’ generation, and so we came together to do something about it," Nguyen said. "I don’t think our parents and grandparents would have the bandwidth to actually do this. I think that this is the foothold of our young people, to stand up for our parents.”
"Saving taxpayers' money by avoiding a needless lawsuit was common sense," Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler told the Associated Press in a statement. "My office has already begun the process of communicating with our registrars of voters statewide to make sure they are informed immediately of the change in the law."
“This is a huge victory for our API [Asian and Pacific Islander] and Latino communities here in Louisiana,” Nguyen said. “This is a step forward for us in terms of being able to have the right to vote.”
Four other states — Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas — currently have proof-of-citizenship requirements for voter registration, however Louisiana's law was the only one that singled out naturalized citizens, according to the Associated Press.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a freelance writer and speaker based in Michigan and Hawaii. She has been a contributor for AAPIVoices.com, NewAmericaMedia.org, ChicagoIsTheWorld.org, PacificCitizen.org, InCultureParent.com. She has published three chapbooks of prose poetry and been included in several journals, anthologies, and art exhibitions. She teaches Asian Pacific American Studies and writing, and she speaks nationally on Asian Pacific American issues.