NASHVILLE — State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, is calling on Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett to immediately investigate what he calls "troubling" allegations that the Hamilton County Election Commission is "engaging in practices causing voter suppression."
In his letter, sent Thursday to Hargett, an appointed Republican, Hakeem said he was writing in "great anguish and concern" and "independent of any believed misdeeds" involving county election administrator Kerry Steelman, who has taken a leave of absence following an unspecified employee complaint.
"It appears that our county election office is becoming a petri dish for the undermining of the fundamental right to free and fair elections," Hakeem wrote, saying concerns expressed to him by voters include "first and foremost accusations that the Hamilton County Election Commission is engaging in practices causing voter suppression in the county."
The "laundry list" of allegations, Hakeem said, include "discriminatory hiring practices of both permanent and part-time workers, as well as, in the office and at the precinct level [which] have resulted in a lack of diversity with regard to both race and political party affiliation."
Hakeem told the Times Free Press on Thursday afternoon that the complaints — all received in the last two weeks — alleged that the election commission only had one Black and one Latino permanent employee and the racial makeup of temporary employees hired for the election, like poll workers, is "out of balance."
Complaints also raised concerns about the number of Republican and Democratic employees tasked with various jobs involving the voting process.
"Two people go into a nursing home to assist people to vote, and this happens without family members being there,'" Hakeem said. "And bottom line is, these persons on that team can vote their wishes because the [citizen] is not capable of doing it by themselves.
"Well, I would have thought that the team would have to have one person from each party, but my understanding is that is not the case."
Hakeem said that while he had no way of verifying the complaints himself, it was imperative that the state investigate the commission before the election.
"We have a presidential election, and down-ballot from there, that may determine the future of our country. And I think we have to be urgent about these actions because every vote counts and persons feel like that's their form of participation by voting," he said during an afternoon news conference.
To expedite the process, Hakeem said he "started at the top."
"I did not communicate with the county. My view is that I'm a state official and there's an oversight component by the state, and I felt that was the appropriate avenue for me to take," he said. "Sometimes, when you start down the chain so to speak, things get clogged up and nothing ever happens. My hope and belief is, by starting — in a sense of speaking — at the top, that we will get a resolution that is in a timely manner that people can feel as credible."
Hakeem did say that he was made aware of a Human Resources report conducted by the county to evaluate fair hiring practices on the commission but has not seen the results.
"It's my understanding that there's an HR report. I guess it was asked for or it was done in regards to the Election Commission and it deals with hiring practices, diversity and things of that nature," he said late Thursday. "And that report has not seen the light of day."
County Mayor Jim Coppinger, one of the addressees of the letter sent to Hargett, said he had not yet reviewed the message and that he was unfamiliar with the report in question.
Hargett said in a statement, "I think it is important to reiterate my confidence in all members of the Hamilton County Election Commission and their ability to oversee the upcoming elections."
Hargett said each county "makes every possible attempt to attract election officials from both parties," Hargett said, adding that "based on information we received from the Hamilton County Election Commission it appears those numbers are very close.
"However," Hargett added, "I am sure the Hamilton County Election Commission would appreciate Rep. Hakeem's support in recruiting Election Day poll officials. Additionally, we believe the Hamilton County Election Commission is properly funded and continues to receive the necessary support from the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners."
Hakeem also received complaints about the general accessibility of polling locations, citing a need for more early voting poll locations and hours to accommodate working people.
Three of Hamilton County's four early voting locations will be open from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, while the Election Commission location will be open 8 a.m.-7 p.m.; all four locations will be open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturdays, according to the commission's website.
Moreover, Hakeem said, there are concerns over insufficient funding allocated to the Election Commission's operations by county government.
"As you are aware, adequate funding is necessary to safeguard free and fair elections," Hakeem said. "I am respectfully asking for your office to open an investigation into these troubling allegations."
He also asked Hargett in the letter that he move with "all deliberate speed to ensure free and fair elections in Hamilton County now instead of a report after the elections that talks about the changes needed. The changes need to be done in the present to have an election that we can trust and verify."
The legislator suggested Hargett contact both the NAACP and the ACLU "to provide insight and assistance in order to add further credibility to the results."
With early voting starting Oct. 14, Hargett said, "I am once again stating my confidence in the staff of the Hamilton County Election Commission as well as the members of the Commission. They are focused on ensuring their fellow Hamilton Countians can safely cast their vote with confidence and that it will be counted accurately and with integrity."
Hamilton County Election Commission Chairman Mike Walden has not returned several calls and voicemails from the Times Free Press this week to discuss accusations against Steelman or the commission.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at email@example.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.
This story was updated at 5:10 p.m. with additional information.
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