New lawsuit renews challenge to Tennessee laws targeting crossover voting in Primary elections

A group of Tennesseans who say they were intimidated into not voting in a Primary election or were threatened with prosecution after they did vote has filed a legal challenge to two state laws meant to prevent crossover voting.

A law passed last year requires polling places to post warning signs stating that it’s a crime for someone to vote in a political party’s Primary if they are not a bona fide member of that party. It has drawn public attention to a rarely-invoked 1972 law that requires Primary voters to be “bona fide” party members or to “declare allegiance” to the party they are voting for.

Tennessee voters do not register by party, and neither law defines what it means to be a bona fide party member. The laws also don’t define how a voter should declare allegiance to a party. One of the plaintiffs is Victor Ashe, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland and longtime Tennessee Republican politician, who claims the laws are so vague that he could be prosecuted for voting in a Republican Primary.

An earlier challenge to the laws brought by Ashe and real estate developer Phil Lawson was dismissed one day before Tennessee’s March 5 presidential Primary. U.S. District Judge Eli Richardson ruled that the plaintiffs’ claims of injury were too speculative.

They refiled the lawsuit in district court last week, adding new plaintiffs and new claims of actual injury.

Lawson said that although he is one of the largest donors to the Tennessee Democratic Party, he has also donated to Republican candidates and has voted for candidates from both parties in the past. Lawson said he refrained from voting in the Republican Primary in March for fear of prosecution.

The new plaintiffs include Gabe Hart, a Madison County resident who says he was told by the local district attorney that he could be prosecuted after he wrote and spoke in local media about voting in a Republican Party Primary although he had identified as a Democrat for many years.

Plaintiff James Palmer, a Roane County resident, chose not to vote in the recent presidential Primary rather than risk prosecution, according to the lawsuit. Palmer had planned to vote in the Republican Primary but was afraid of prosecution because he has supported Democratic candidates in the past.

The plaintiffs claim the Tennessee voting laws violate their First Amendment rights to participate in the political process. They also contend the laws violate the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution because they are so vague that voters cannot know whether they will be prosecuted, according to the lawsuit.

In fact, prosecutors in different judicial districts have offered very different interpretations of the laws and how they should be enforced, the suit claims.

Plaintiffs seek a declaration that the voting laws are unconstitutional and a court order preventing their enforcement.

The new lawsuit added a number of Tennessee district attorneys as defendants after Richardson found the defendants in the earlier lawsuit, including Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins, lacked the power to prosecute violations of the challenged laws.

A spokesperson for the Tennessee Attorney General’s office did not immediately return a message on Wednesday requesting comment.

Tennessee voters often decide which primary to participate in based on campaign developments. The partisan balance in Tennessee means many local elections are decided in the primary, with large cities leaning heavily Democratic and most other areas leaning heavily Republican. It is not uncommon for people to vote for one party in local elections and a different party in federal or statewide elections.

Republicans, who control the Tennessee legislature, have discussed requiring voters to register by party in order to control who votes in the primaries, but the idea has never had enough support to pass.


Republished with permission from The Associated Press.

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