Louisiana lawmakers target local voting rules with proposed amendment

Opponents say non-citizens casting ballots is a non-issue

By: - May 5, 2022 4:43 pm
Louisiana lawmakers target local voting rules with proposed amendment

Local governments in Louisiana would be prohibited from making their own voter registration rules under a constitutional amendment that was advanced Wednesday in the Legislature. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator)

Local governments in Louisiana would be prohibited from making their own voter registration rules under a constitutional amendment that was advanced Wednesday in the Legislature.

House Bill 178, sponsored by Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner, was approved in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee in a 7-5 vote with Rep. Malinda White, an independent from Bogalusa, siding with Republicans in favor of the proposal. 

Villio said the amendment is needed to prevent towns and cities in Louisiana from doing what New York City did last year. A law was passed there that gave all residents, regardless of citizenship, the ability to vote in municipal elections.

The proposal would change a provision in the Louisiana Constitution that currently gives every “citizen of the state,” who is at least 18, the right to register and vote. The amendment would add the phrase “and the United States” after the word “state” and an additional subsection to prohibit local governments from changing any voter registration qualifications.  

Democrats on the committee expressed suspicion. Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, said he agreed with the substance of the bill that only U.S. citizens have the right to vote, but he said he was worried the ballot measure would create a false narrative that non-citizens are voting in Louisiana. 

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“The problem with a ballot measure like this… is that it’s going to lead to further division and further skepticism being fed around the election integrity process,” Duplessis said, “and this notion that you have all of these illegals or people who don’t belong here or people who are some kind of way being snuck into the country who shouldn’t be voting that are voting, and we now have to put this on the ballot.”

Rep. Candace Newell, D-New Orleans, shared similar concerns. She asked Villio to consider a statutory proposal instead of a constitutional amendment in an effort to contain most of the debate within the Legislature. 

Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, who spoke in support of the bill, explained that the “gap” that needs to be filled exists in the state constitution. Ardoin said its current language is confusing because some could interpret the phrase “citizen of the state” to mean “resident of the state.” Because a foreign citizen can be a Louisiana resident, someone could argue that the state constitution allows non-citizens to vote in local elections in Louisiana, he said. 

“I think I’ve been very measured in all the issues that we’ve dealt with since the 2020 election, and in no way if I thought that this was going to create such a chasm… would I be pursuing this,” Ardoin, a Republican, said. “What I’m doing is I’m trying to plug a gap that I see that could possibly occur that could create chasms in our system, and I want to avoid that as much as possible.”

Woody Jenkins, a former state representative from Baton Rouge when the 1974 constitution was written, said the phrase “citizen of the state” means a U.S. citizen who is a resident of Louisiana. 

“It is impossible to be a Louisiana citizen and not be a citizen of the United States,” Jenkins said.

State citizenship is discussed in the U.S. Constitution. The 14th Amendment says American citizens are also citizens “of the State wherein they reside.” Also, Article III of the U.S. Constitution, which established federal courts, declares corporations as state citizens, though it does not extend voting rights to corporations. 

Still, Ardoin said the voting rights clause in Louisiana’s constitution should be absolutely certain so that it prevents anyone or any local government from going “rogue” and changing voter registration qualifications right before an election.   

“I don’t want to be having these types of debates during elections,” he said. “I want to have this debate now. I want to move forward with it. I don’t want us looking like other states in major elections.” 

Ardoin and Villio offered to change the bill so that the ballot question would appear in a non-federal election. When Democrats did not respond to the offer, the date was left unchanged. If the Legislature passes the bill, voters will see the amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot.  

The bill next heads to the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure. The legislation will require a two-thirds vote in both chambers before it can be placed on the ballot for voter approval at the Nov. 8 election. Constitutional amendments do not need the governor’s signature. 

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Much of his journalism has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and coverage of municipal and state government. He has received recognitions including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus and a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his two sons and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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