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Tennessee Voters, LWVTN Refile Challenge to State’s “Bona Fide” Primary Voting Law

The updated complaint includes voters who were deterred from voting in the primary and targeted for prosecution under the new law


Press Release / Last Updated:

Nashville, TN — Today, plaintiffs Victor Ashe, Phil Lawson, Gabe Hart, James R. Palmer, and the League of Women Voters of Tennessee filed a federal lawsuit challenging a state law that requires voters to be “bona fide” members of a political party to vote in the State’s open primary election or face prosecution. The Plaintiffs contend that the law creates confusion and intimidation—including during Tennessee’s most recent primary—because the law fails to define what constitutes a “bona fide” member or how a voter can satisfy such a requirement since voters in the State do not register with a party. The plaintiffs are represented by Protect Democracy and the law firms Sherrard Roe Voigt & Harbison, Baker Donelson, and Sidley Austin LLP.

You can view a PDF of the complaint, here.

Last month, the original complaint was dismissed by a federal judge due to an issue of standing, rather than a determination of whether the law was unconstitutional. However, the revised complaint filed today addresses the issue of standing and adds new plaintiffs who were deterred from exercising their right to vote in the primary and were targeted for prosecution under the new law.

"After being targeted for voting in a primary for someone I've known since childhood, I feel strongly that this law is simply meant to intimidate voters and suppress the vote in Tennessee,” said Gabe Hart, plaintiff and Tennessee voter. “I was told directly by my local D.A. that I should be concerned about being prosecuted; I was called a felon by a local elected official; and I was otherwise worried about both voting and speaking my mind because of this law. My hope is that as a result of this lawsuit no other Tennessean has to go through what I've been through and we can all vote freely and without fear of reprisal."

"I was disappointed when our case was initially dismissed for lack of standing,” said Victor Ashe, plaintiff and Tennessee voter. “Now that the Tennessee presidential primary has occurred, and we know of individuals who did not exercise their right to vote because of this law, I'm hopeful the court will hear the merits of this case. Since the primary vote, we also witnessed actions taken by the Republican State Executive Committee to remove from the ballot qualified Republican candidates and popularly elected delegates to the Republican Party convention based upon this vague and confusing definition of  a “bona fide” Republican voter. These actions are fundamentally wrong and contrary to democratic principles.”

“This law has discouraged Tennesseans from voting and will continue to cause unnecessary confusion for voters who rely on the League's nonpartisan voter information for clear guidance,” said Debby Gould, President of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee. “The League of Women Voters remains undeterred in our fight to ensure that all voters are empowered at the ballot box and can feel confident in their right to vote.”

"Laws like this are a recipe for confusion and have resulted in voters choosing not to participate," said Celina Stewart, chief counsel at the League of Women Voters of the US. "Instead of creating laws that confuse and discourage voters, lawmakers should prioritize their efforts on clear election laws that make voting easy and accessible"

"Threatening voters with prosecution based on vague, unknowable criteria is not a legitimate way to conduct a primary and it has unjustly prevented Tennesseans from participating in our democracy,” said Orion Danjuma, counsel with Protect Democracy. “Voting is a fundamental right for all American citizens and for democracy to work, voters must be able to participate free from intimidation. To ensure free and fair elections, this unconstitutional barrier to the franchise must be struck down.”

Tennessee currently has partially open primaries, meaning that voters can vote for whatever party ballot they choose. Tennesseans only 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. 




The League of Women Voters envisions a democracy where every person has the desire, the right, the knowledge and the confidence to participate. We believe in the power of women to create a more perfect democracy.

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