Opinion: Tennessee voters: Don’t let new notice about political party affiliation stop you from casting a ballot

Staff File Photo / Stickers await voters for early voting at the Hamilton County Election Commission in July 2022.

Consider yourself warned.

When Hamilton County voters next go to their polling places on March 5, 2024, to vote in the presidential preference primary, a notice warning them to only vote in a primary for a party of which they are a bona fide member will be posted.

The sign will read: "It is a violation of Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 2-7-115(b), and punishable as a crime under Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 2-19-102 or Section 2-19-107, if a person votes in a political party's primary without being a bona fide member of or affiliated with that political party, or to declare allegiance to that party without the intent to affiliate with that party."

Should you be afraid if you as a Democrat choose to vote in the Republican primary for a challenger to former President Donald Trump or if you as a Republican decide to vote in the Democratic primary for anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to send President Joe Biden a message? Probably not.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed the bill to have the notices posted last week.

When this bill was being considered in the legislature last month, we said we didn't believe it was necessary because we are called a partially open primary state, meaning — according to the National Conference of State Legislatures — voters do not register with parties to vote in a specific primary, though their vote may be regarded as a form of unofficial registration with that party.

A voter who chooses to vote in a primary of a party for which they have never or rarely voted could be challenged by another person present at the poll. If that happens, according to Tennessee law, the "challenge shall be disposed of ... by the judge or judges and the other election officials of the party in whose primary the voter applied to vote, with a total of three (3) to decide the challenge."

And that's only the beginning of a highly complicated set of procedures, which would result in either a unanimous determination to reject the voter from the primary or a split determination that would allow the challenged individual to vote in the primary as if unchallenged.

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.

Tennessee law says poll watchers must be 17 years old by Election Day (in other words, one could be a poll watcher but not be old enough to vote), must not be a candidate in a race on the ballot, and may be appointed by any political party or organization interested in a ballot question or in the purity of elections, or by any candidate. Names of poll watchers must be submitted in writing and signed only by those authorized to make the appointment and must be submitted to the county election commission by noon on the second working day before the election.

In the recent past, candidates in the state have been challenged over their party bona fides and candidates have challenged the election results on the basis that voters crossed over and cast ballots for candidates in a different primary from which have been associated, but the challenging of individual voters on their bona fides has been few and far between.

The new law has not gone unnoticed by Hamilton County party chairs.

Rachel Campbell, chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, said in an email her local party "believes that this is yet another voter suppression tactic by the [Tennessee Republican Party]. We support expanded voter access, and protecting everyone's right and access to the voting box, however they should choose to vote."

Nevertheless, she said "we will continue to recruit and place poll watchers at polling locations, in the hopes that we are able to prevent inappropriate voter tactics and intimidation."

Mark Harrison, chair of the Hamilton County Republican Party, said he hoped the new law would encourage more people to be poll watchers and that, as volunteers have reminded him, "many hands make light work." He said the local party encourages "everyone to cast a ballot to support the conservative principles of fiscal responsibility, parental rights, safety and free enterprise.

"Those principles have created the most fiscally sound state in the union," he said in an email, "and one in which droves of people desire to live. Let's keep it that way."

Since Hamilton County in recent years rarely has been the site of accusations of election fraud or disputes at the polling place, and is known for smooth elections, we hope the new notice will not cause undue angst at individual precincts. And we hope poll watchers, armed with potential new authority but without the knowledge to exercise it properly, will leave voters alone unless they recognize an egregious violation.

Tennessee needs to be a state that encourages all legal voting and not one that hinders one's sacred duty.