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VOL. 45 | NO. 41 | Friday, October 8, 2021

Alas, the best design for new Tennessee license plate didn’t win

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Did you vote for your favorite new car tag design? Gov. Bill Lee’s office set up the recent online poll that allowed a choice among four options. Where those four options came from I have no idea, but they’re not bad, as these things go.

The winning design – upper left of the four plates pictured – was not the one I selected. I selected the white plate at the lower left.

As I’ve written before, Tennesseans have a wealth of automobile license plates to choose from, including more than 100 specialty tags that benefit and pay allegiance to various universities or organizations. You could make the argument that the Dollywood Foundation tag, with its prominent image of Dolly herself, literally puts the state’s best face forward.

But all of those tags carry an extra fee. It’s no surprise that the most prevalent tag on the road by far is the cheapest one: The standard green mountain version selected by Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2006 and slightly modified a few times since.

It’s the one the two Rogers vehicles display, and I consider it an upgrade from the New York tag, which in color scheme seems to pay tribute to Cub Scout uniforms.

But it’s apparently time for a new Tennessee version, thus the governor’s poll.

The four finalists are pretty stark changes from the current plate, as you can see from the photos. Whether they are an improvement is a different question. Stark is also a good description. I’d say they fall into the minimalist school of tag design.

For maximalist design, look at the Tennessee Wildlife Federation’s hummingbird tag. Nice, but ... busy.

If you look back at Tennessee tags through history starting with the first in 1915, you’ll see that aesthetics were not a prime consideration for many years. Basically, they were just numbers on a rectangular piece of metal.

That changed a bit in 1936 when tags were issued in the shape of the state. Still, numbers on metal. The tag went back to a rectangle in 1957, but the state outline continued as an element on the tag through 1976 and again from 1983 to 1987 and on the current tag.

Somebody really likes that outline, I guess, since it’s on the plate selected. It’s more or less a parallelogram with squiggly sides for the eastern and western boundaries. It’s not likely to be mistaken for, say, California.

My first Tennessee tag was the one introduced in 1988, which was coincidentally the first to feature the tristar emblem that’s on the state flag. I’d argue that tag’s still a classic – when you have a state symbol as distinctive as the tristar, why wouldn’t you use it?

(Side note: a Tennessee flag tag sits on the front bumper of the Jeep I drive.)

As is required by state law, all the proposed new tags have “Tennessee,” “Volunteer State” and “TNvacation.com” displayed. They also all include the tristar, though on one it’s only a faint presence in the background. Not good enough, says I.

You will also observe that each of the four examples shown includes “In God We Trust.”

That would be a requirement if some legislators had had their way in 2017. But the attorney general then and now, Herbert Slatery, decided such a requirement was “constitutionally suspect,” so it was made optional instead.

And that was a good thing, as it turns out. Figures provided by the Tennessee Department of Revenue show that, of the standard-issue tags on the road now, only 656,755 include the God motto. Some 4,255,477 do not, which would seem to indicate a strong preference for a secular display.

Based on my own personal survey, I’m surprised there are that many God tags. Over the course of a week and hundreds of tags, I saw five with In God We Trust. Two of those were from Montgomery County, for what that’s worth.

Back to where I started, the governor’s poll: I voted for the one described as the White Tristar Vintage-Inspired. In addition to the tristar, I like the return of the state outline around “Tennessee.”

And I think the white would look best on my Jeep, which is navy and could use the contrast.

I expected my choice to win by a very large landslide. It didn’t.

That means the contest was obviously rigged, and I will demand an audit.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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