GOP-backed bill requires polling places to warn voters against voting in “wrong” primary

Tennessee doesn’t require party registration but a new bill would require voters be told it is a crime to vote in a party they aren’t bona fide members of

By: - April 5, 2023 6:00 am
Voters at Nashville's Downtown Library.(Photo: Ray DiPietro)

CAPTION: According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 21 bills that restrict voting or interfere with election administration were either signed into law, or await the governor’s signature, as of May 29. (New Jersey Monitor)(Photo: Ray DiPietro)

A GOP-backed bill requiring every Tennessee polling place to display signs saying it is a crime to vote in a primary without being a bona fide party member advanced Tuesday in the legislature. 

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, said the intent of the bill (SB0978/HB0828) is to “remind people they have to vote in the proper political party that they’re in.” 

But Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, questioned whether such signage could discourage people from voting. Yarbro noted the state does not require any formal party registration in order to vote in primaries and such signage could serve to wrongly signal to voters that they had failed to take a necessary step before voting.

Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon.

“Are we really educating people here in a way that is meaningful, or are we just potentially discouraging them from voting?” Yarbro said. “It inherently makes me nervous when we’re posting statements about  potential criminal threats in the polling place.” 

The proposed law requires yellow signs to be prominently displayed at each voting site that warn voters that casting a ballot in a political party’s primary without being a member of, or affiliated with, that party is a Class C misdemeanor. 

Tennessee currently has open primaries; voters aren’t required to register with a political party in order to vote, leaving it to voters to self-declare their party affiliation and vote in the primary of their choosing. 

State law specifies a voter may cast a ballot in a primary who is a “bona fide member of and affiliated with the political party in whose primary the voter seeks to vote” or “at the time the voter seeks to vote, the voter declares allegiance” to that party. 

A violation of the law is a Class C misdemeanor, which comes with a punishment of up to 30 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $50.

“I’m trying to understand…the extent to which this is a significant issue,” Yarbro said. “Have we actually prosecuted people under this? Has it been upheld from a First Amendment standpoint? I’m trying to make sure we’ve really thought this through.”

“As far as I know it has not been prosecuted,” Pody responded. “This is just stating what our actual law is; this is not changing any of the laws.”

Yarbro suggested the signs could lead to confusion with both Republican and Democratic voters.

Are we really educating people here in a way that is meaningful, or are we just potentially discouraging them from voting? It inherently makes me nervous when we’re posting statements about potential criminal threats in the polling place.

– Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville

“I think there are a lot of people who vote every year in the Republican primaries who don’t know whether or not they are a technical bona fide member of a party,”  Yarbro said. “I think there are a lot of people who vote in Democratic primaries who could see this and not understand whether or not they count as a bona fide member, because it signals there is some sort of registration or action that you will have taken to join the party, which is not the case in Tennessee.”

The bill was approved 7-2 along party lines in the Senate State and Local Government Committee Tuesday, with only Yarbro and Sen. Sara Kyle, a Memphis Democrat, in opposition.

A separate measure, introduced earlier this year, would close primaries – requiring party registration in order to vote – has failed to advance in the legislature since it was last heard in late February.

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.