Newsletter: "Bona Fide" Party Loyalists

In Tennessee, an Orwellian new law is scaring voters away from the polls under threat of criminal prosecution unless they declare allegiance to a political party.

Picture this: you walk into your polling location to vote in a primary. You're a civically-minded voter, frustrated by the two-party system and eager to improve your community.

And you see this:

Yes, unfortunately. You did read that correctly.

An absurd new law in Tennessee is scaring all but the most loyal party-line voters away from voting, under the threat of criminal prosecution.

Today, we talk about the law, we talk about George Orwell, and we talk about the effort to change it.

LetUsVote Newsletter: "bona fide" party loyalists.

Let's zoom out and understand how this works.

It's a little nerdy, but I promise it's important to understand in detail. By the end of this, you'll be smarter. I promise.

You'll also be pretty fired up. So ya know, just prepare for that.

Okay, each state has different rules about who can vote in primaries, how those elections take place, and how they interact with voter registration. 

Normally, when I and the LetUsVote crew talk about voting rights for independents, we're talking about a very specific set of laws that prevent independent voters from voting in primaries. This matters: roughly 85% of federal elections (and often a higher percentage of state and local elections) are decided in the primary.

Can't vote in the primary? Then your vote has very little power. We think the right to vote shouldn't be contingent on loyalty to a private political entity, so we think that's bad.

Fairly simple.

Our collaborators at Open Primaries have built a fantastic resource outlining the rules for voting in primaries in each state if you'd like to learn more.

That's how the rules around primary voting are usually constructed: registered with Republicans or Democrats? You can vote in that primary. Not registered? Tough luck.

But there are a few states - mostly in the South - that don't collect party registration for voters at all. The state just doesn't know how individual voters think about their party preference. In these states, voters choose which primary they want to vote in when they arrive at their polling location.

Tennesse Republican leadership doesn't like this very much. And you know what? Neither do the Democrats. They want control over who votes, and when.

Which brings us to the law on the books, and that absurd, terrible, no good yellow sign you saw above.

For decades, Tennessee law has said the following about party primaries (TN Code 2-7-115 for the law dorks):

A registered voter is entitled to vote in a primary election for offices for which the voter is qualified to vote at the polling place where the voter is registered if:

  1. The voter is a bona fide member of and affiliated with the political party in whose primary the voter seeks to vote; or
  2. At the time the voter seeks to vote, the voter declares allegiance to the political party in whose primary the voter seeks to vote and states that the voter intends to affiliate with that party.

Is it crazy to you that the right to vote in Tennessee is contingent on "declaring allegiance" to a political party? It should be.

But it gets worse.

For years, this was the law on the books. But it was one of those many nothingburger laws that's ill-defined and everyone kind of ignores.

Until 2023, when Senator Mark Pody sponsored a bill in the Tennessee legislature that added the following to the law:

On primary election days, a sign that is a minimum of eight and one-half inches by eleven inches (8.5″x11″) with a yellow background and bold, black text containing the following language must be posted in each polling place.

Ah, yes. The sign. 

So let's summarize:

An old law in Tennessee demands that the right to vote is contingent on declaring allegiance to a private political party and demonstrating some undefined evidence of being a "bona fide party member." A new law scares voters away from voting under the threat of criminal prosecution.

The government demands you swear allegiance to a political party in order to vote, or else you go to jail? Is this real?

It's Orwellian. It's Big Brother from 1984. 

Fortunately, the consistently wonderful League of Women Voters is taking action. They've filed a lawsuit in Tennessee, which you can read all about in the link above.

The status is this: earlier this month, they've filed a new complaint, which claims two major points:

  1. Voters are "chilled" from voting in primary elections
  2. The League's mission is frustrated due to "unconstitutional vagueness" in the law above.

Unconstitutional vagueness. It's the understatement of the century.

This is, of course, more evidence of what LetUsVote has been saying all along: independent voters are ignored, suppressed, and shut out of participating in democracy.

It's unAmerican.

We have to push back on this. And the way to do that is by telling the stories of independent voters. LetUsVote has collected hundreds of stories from independents like you, and we want to hear yours. Share your story with us to help push back on absurd laws like those we see in Tennessee:

Share: Why Are You Independent?

If you aren't already, make sure you're following LetUsVote on YouTube, Instagram, X/Twitter or Facebook, where we're sharing these stories almost every single day.

Okay, that's it for today.

If you support what we're doing here at LetUsVote, please know that any contribution - big or small - helps us keep up the work of building a unique and totally new community for independent voters. It would mean the world if you can contribute.

Thank you for all you do.


Will Conway

Campaign Director - LetUsVote