A federal lawsuit alleging Mississippi law made it more difficult for naturalized citizens to vote than in any state in the country has been dismissed by a federal judge.
But the 2019 lawsuit was not dropped until the state law challenged as discriminatory was repealed.
After a bill passed during the 2022 legislative session repealing the law that placed an extra burden on naturalized citizens, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves of the Southern District of Mississippi on Tuesday dismissed the lawsuit.
The groups that filed the lawsuit — the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Mississippi Center for Justice — and Secretary of State Michael Watson, who was the named defendant in the case, jointly asked Reeves to dismiss the lawsuit.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance and League of Women Voters of Mississippi challenging a 1924 state law that required naturalized citizens to present documentation of their citizenship when registering to vote. The lawsuit claimed federal law and the U.S. Constitution mandated naturalized citizens (those born in other countries but who have met standards to be U.S. citizens) be treated the same as native born citizens.
“No state in the United States other than Mississippi subjects naturalized citizens to a higher proof-of-citizenship requirement for voter registration than U.S.-born citizens. The time has come for the state of Mississippi to stop doing so,” the lawsuit filed in November 2019 said.
In 2021, the groups filing the lawsuit and Watson asked Reeves to postpone ruling on the issue to give the Legislature time to act. In the 2022 session, the Legislature passed House Bill 1510 that repealed the old law. The bill established a system where people who have been marked as non-citizens by a Highway Patrol database when registering to vote will be double-checked through a more reliable United States Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Systemic Alien Verification for Entitlements program.
Only those flagged when registering to vote by both the state driver’s license database and the federal program will have their applications placed on hold while they are notified and required to provide proof of citizenship.
“Having gone through the naturalization process and pledged their allegiance to the nation, naturalized citizens deserve better than to be targeted for unequal treatment. Their patriotism deserves to be honored, not punished,” said Ezra Rosenberg of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The addition of this new safeguard will help prevent naturalized citizens from being erroneously blocked from registering to vote through no fault of their own. While implementation of this new provision will require monitoring, we are pleased with this resolution and are committed to ensuring every eligible Mississippian is able to register to vote.”
Rob McDuff of the Mississippi Center for Justice said: “We would prefer that there be no database matching. There is no problem in Mississippi with non-citizens trying to vote. But given that the Secretary of State created such a database matching program, HB 1510 makes the situation better and decreases the number of erroneous non-matches.”
The legislation repealing the 1924 law passed both chambers earlier this year by overwhelming margins. Those who opposed the bill were Democrats who maintained that there was no need to require any extra scrutiny of naturalized citizens when they register to vote. State law already requires all people registering to vote to attest of their citizenship, and those who register but are not citizens face criminal prosecution.
“We are grateful that our legislators have taken this step to help ensure naturalized citizens can exercise their fundamental right to vote,” said Vangela M. Wade, president of the Mississippi Center for Justice. “But we have a long way to go to fully protect Mississippians’ democratic rights. Today, many Mississippians, particularly people of color, face enormous hurdles to access the ballot box. We must continue removing barriers to voting and make access the standard, not the exception.”
Editor’s note: Vangela M. Wade, president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, is a member of Mississippi Today’s board of directors.