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LWVTN, Tennessee Voters File Federal Lawsuit Challenging State “Bona Fide” Primary Voting Law

Press Release / Last Updated:

NASHVILLE — The League of Women Voters of Tennessee and Tennessee voters Victor Ashe and Phil Lawson filed a federal lawsuit today challenging state laws that require voters to be “bona fide” members of a political party to vote in the state’s open primary elections. Plaintiffs argue that the laws create confusion and intimidation because voters in Tennessee do not register with a party, and there is no way to determine what “bona fide” means. The plaintiffs are represented by the law firms  Sherrard Roe Voigt & Harbison, Baker Donelson and Sidley Austin LLP, and Protect Democracy. 

The plaintiffs are challenging a new state law that requires election officials to place a sign at every polling place warning voters in bolded language that to vote in a party’s primary, they must be a “bona fide member of or affiliated with” or “declare allegiance” to that party or else face criminal prosecution. The language of the sign is based on a Tennessee law that has been in effect for over 50 years but has never been enforced, according to the plaintiffs.  

As explained in the complaint, neither the law nor any other provision in Tennessee law defines what it means to be a “bona fide” party member, nor how one affiliates with a party or can “declare allegiance” to a party to avoid criminal prosecution. For voters and voter education organizations, plaintiffs argue, the law creates serious confusion and ultimately may discourage them from going to the polls to vote in Tennessee’s open primary elections.  

“This new law will have a chilling effect on Tennesseans exercising their right to vote and creates unnecessary confusion for voters,” said Debby Gould, President of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee. “The League of Women Voters will continue to fight to ensure that all voters are empowered at the ballot box and can feel confident in their right to vote.” 

“I am a lifelong Republican, having served as an office holder and a candidate selected in the Republican primary as the party’s candidate for the United States Senate,” said Victor Ashe, plaintiff and Tennessee voter. “I was shocked to learn about this new law, which allows someone other than me to determine if I am a bona fide member of a political party without clear criteria as to what that term means. At times, I have been critical of the actions of some elected Republicans, and I now learn party officials — without defining the conditions of party membership — could not only challenge my ability to vote but also seek to have me criminally prosecuted for voting in the primary where I have voted all my adult life.” 
“As a native Knoxvillian, I spent my life building a successful business in this community and supporting with my time and money efforts to make Knoxville a better place for all to live,” said Phil Lawson, plaintiff and Tennessee voter. “I have always exercised my right to vote and supported the candidates whom I thought would best help our community. I now learn I may not be a member of either political party, and there is no way for me to make that choice. I also learned I could be criminally prosecuted if I make the wrong choice. I’ve spent my life building my reputation on what I think benefits all parts of my community, and this law tells me I could be prosecuted for that effort.” 

"When voters show up to the polls, they should feel confident, not confused,” said Celina Stewart, chief counsel and senior director of advocacy and litigation at the League of Women Voters of the US. “When laws like this are on the books, especially in states like Tennessee where primaries matter a great deal, it could potentially lead voters to reconsider their decision to participate."

“No matter their political beliefs, all Tennesseans can agree that voting is a fundamental right, and for democracy to work, voters must be able to participate free from intimidation,” said Orion Danjuma, counsel with Protect Democracy. “Posting signs in polling places threatening to prosecute voters based on vague, unknowable criteria is certain to chill participation, particularly from communities that have been subject to over-prosecution. To ensure free and fair participation in the primary, this unconstitutional law must be blocked.”  

Tennessee currently has partially open primaries, meaning voters can vote for whatever party ballot they choose. In fact, there is no process to register with a political party in Tennessee. Tennesseans simply select the primary ballot of the party in which they choose to vote when they arrive at the polling place. Due to many factors, the plaintiffs explain in the complaint, in Tennessee, the primary election often determines the ultimate winner of an election. Thus, ensuring voters have full and equal access to the ballot is critical to maintaining fair elections in Tennessee. 

Read the full complaint here.


The League of Women Voters of the United States encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy.   

Protect Democracy is a cross-ideological nonprofit group dedicated to defeating the authoritarian threat, building more resilient democratic institutions, and protecting our freedom and liberal democracy.  

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