Why a former Knoxville mayor is suing to stop a Tennessee law: 'People will be shocked'

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After a lifetime of voting as a Republican, and even serving in office as one, former Knoxville mayor Victor Ashe doesn't hold back when criticizing members of his party in his weekly Knox News column.

Now he's concerned he could be alienated by his party, or even prosecuted for voting in GOP primaries.

A new Tennessee law passed in May requires polling places to post signs informing voters that it's illegal to cast a ballot in a partisan primary election without being a "bona fide" member of that political party.

Ashe is part of a group suing Tennessee in federal court over the law, alleging there is no legal mechanism to determine whether a voter has "bona fide" party credentials.

"(My criticism of officials) might diminish my Republican credentials," he told Knox News.

Ashe and his fellow plaintiffs, Knoxville voter Phil Lawson and members of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee, argue the law is unconstitutional because it threatens voters with felony convictions based on "nebulous standards."

"I think it will suppress the vote," Ashe said. "It creates confusion.

"A law like this can only discourage people from voting and will have a chilling effect."

He equated the law to efforts to intimidate Black voters after the Civil War, including the use of literacy tests and poll taxes.

"I think it's wrong," he said.

Ashe has a history of taking the lead on changes to the election processes, dating back to his 1968-1974 tenure in the Tennessee House of Representatives.

He authored the 1971 law that brought presidential primary elections to Tennessee in the first place. Before that, candidates were nominated through party conventions.

"I consider that one of my lasting legislative achievements," he told Knox News. "(This lawsuit) is a natural extension of my service. It's part of my political DNA."

Unless a judge intervenes, Tennessee's new law will be in effect for the March 5 presidential and Knox County primary elections.

"I hope it's declared unconstitutional," Ashe said. "But in the meantime, whatever the final judgment is, hopefully there will be an injunction preventing ... all the signs being posted," he said about the legal notices at the polls.

Ashe served as Knoxville's mayor from 1988 to 2003, marking the longest tenure in the city's history. He was appointed by former U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama to federal positions.

Allie Feinberg reports on politics for Knox News. Email her: allie.feinberg@knoxnews.com and follow her on X, formerly known as Twitter, @alliefeinberg.

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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Former Knoxville mayor Victor Ashe suing Tennessee over voting law