Tennessee sued over 'bona fide' political party primary law

A group of Tennessee voters, including former Knoxville mayor and longtime Republican Victor Ashe, have filed a federal lawsuit challenging a new law requiring polling places to inform voters that it is illegal to vote in a primary election without being a "bona fide" political party member.

The lawsuit alleges there is no legal mechanism to determine a voter's "bona fide" party credentials and the law could spark voter confusion. Tennessee does not require voters to register by political party, meaning voters choose at the polls what party primary ballot they prefer.

Along with Ashe, the League of Women Voters of Tennessee and Knoxville voter Phil Lawson filed the lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee in Nashville.

In the federal court filing, the plaintiffs argue the law is unconstitutional because it threatens "voters, including primarily those who have no intent to crossover vote, with felony convictions based on nebulous standards that have no definition under state law and instead are defined by private political parties."

Ashe, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland, told the USA TODAY Network-Tennessee, he was worried who gets to makes the call on voters' party affiliation. He's a lifelong Republican but sometimes writes critically of fellow party members in his Knox News columns.

He wondered if that was enough to be used against him at the polls.

"This new law, I find it rather shocking because it allows someone other than me to decide if I'm a bona fide member of the Republican Party," Ashe said. "What is a bona fide Democrat or Republican? It's not defined. How does a citizen obey the law?"

"I heard about (the law) and I thought, 'This can't be true.'"

State Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, sponsored the legislation, which largely passed on a party line vote, with a few Republicans in both chambers joining Democrats to vote against it. A separate effort to fully close the primary process and require full party registration failed to advance.

“This new law will have a chilling effect on Tennesseans exercising their right to vote and creates unnecessary confusion for voters,” Debby Gould, president of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee, said in a statement. “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.”

The Tennessee Attorney General's Office has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Reach Melissa Brown at mabrown@tennessean.com.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee sued by former Knoxville mayor Victor Ashe over voting law