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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / District 28 Democrat candidate Yusuf Hakeem speaks during a meet and greet hosted by the League of Women Voters in the Chattanooga Rooms at the University Center on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Two local Republican state legislators question criticisms made by fellow Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, a Chattanooga Democrat and the lone Black lawmaker from the county, who earlier this week aired what he called "troubling allegations" the Hamilton County Election Commission engaged in "practices causing voter suppression."

A "laundry list" cited by Hakeem on Thursday included what he said are charges the Republican-controlled commission has engaged in "discriminatory hiring practices" involving both full-time posts and at the precinct level during elections. It's "resulted in a lack of diversity with regard to both race and political party affiliation," Hakeem said.

Asked about Hakeem's comments, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican and chairman of the county's seven-member legislative delegation, said "if he thinks it's out of proportion, then Yusuf and other leaders in the community need to find poll workers."

Gardenhire added that "in my experience ... all the polls in African-American communities are staffed with African Americans. They're all friendly, they're all well qualified."

Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, said regarding Hakeem's remarks that they "infer that based on the color of your skin your vote won't count" and called that "an insult to every employee at the Election Commission."

Gardenhire, whose district includes most of the city of Chattanooga, said he worked to get the commission to advertise their needs for workers in a Black-owned local newspaper.

"Really, Yusuf, if he thinks we need more qualified Election Day workers to work at the polls, he needs to bring them to us. ... We're constantly begging people to help," Gardenhire said, noting that was the purpose of a bill that he and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, passed earlier this year that allows local, state and federal employees to serve as poll workers in elections.

Yet another provision lowered the minimum age requirement to work at a polling station to 16.

In Tennessee, local election commissions are appointed by the seven-member State Election Commission, which has a 4-3 Republican majority. They in turn name members to each of the 95 county-level election commissions, which have five members — three Republicans and two Democrats.

Republicans have a numerical advantage of membership at the local and state level based on which party has a majority of members in the General Assembly, which Republicans have. The State Election Commission typically follows recommendations of local legislators in making the partisan appointments.

Earlier in the week, Hakeem elaborated to the Times Free Press that his understanding is the 13-employee local election commission staff has just one Black and one Latino permanent employee and the racial makeup of temporary employees hired for the election, such as poll workers, was also "out of balance."

The county's population of Black residents is about 20%.

Hakeem said complaints also addressed concerns about the number of Republican and Democratic employees tasked with various jobs involving the voting process, saying "two people go into a nursing home to assist people to vote, and this happens without family members being there. And bottom line is, these persons on that team can vote their wishes because the [citizen] is not capable of doing it by themselves."

He said he "would have thought that the team would have to have one person from each party, but my understanding is that is not the case."

And Hakeem, who said he had no way of verifying complaints himself, also called on Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, a Republican, to investigate prior to the Nov. 3 election.

Instead, Hargett defended the local commission, saying "with early voting starting in less than three weeks, 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.

Among other things, Hargett released data he says shows that for the Nov. 3 election Hamilton County will have 37 Republican officers of election and 33 Democratic officers of election. Two other officers of election are nonpartisan.

Hargett also said 50% of poll workers in November will be Republican with 44% Democratic and 6% are nonpartisan.

But no information was released on how many whites and how many Blacks or other minorities are employed in the local commission's central office or among officers of election or among poll workers. Efforts by the Times Free Press on Friday to obtain the racial breakdowns from the county Election Commission were unsuccessful.

Hakeem said during a news conference Thursday that data on the workers would not be enough to call off the requested investigation.

"Since I lodged these concerns, it seems like everybody has those numbers except me. So that gives me great pause and great concern. And to give us numbers on papers is one thing, but what is the verification process of these numbers?" he asked. "I feel at this point in time there needs to be some independent monitors or persons who have accountability on their mind to share information with us."

His doubts are not regarding Hargett himself, but the lack of oversight, he said.

"Now he is probably going on what he's been told. But I doubt he has anyone here in Chattanooga," Hakeem said. "It's not enough for me to be told by the secretary of state what these numbers are, even though I haven't received them. And so I'm saying, how do we verify that? How do we know that?"

(READ MORE: Hamilton County elections chief takes leave of absence following employee complaint)

Around the same time Hakeem received the complaints of voter surpression and related issues, Election Commission administrator Kerry Steelman, the top officer of the agency, took a voluntary leave of absence after complaints were made against him to the county's human resources department.

The nature of the employee complaints is still unknown, but Hakeem said he believes the complaints are unrelated.

"The concerns I have are independent of some allegations that have been made against the administrator of elections," Hakeem said. "I can say personally, I've never had a problem that [Steelman] was not able to work through with me."

"Time will tell. Hopefully an investigation will uncover what is actually going on."

An attorney for Steelman said this week that he will cooperate in an investigation, but wanted to take a leave to prevent distracting from the election.

Election Commission board chair Mike Walden, who is conducting the investigation, has not returned several phone calls and voicemails about both subjects this week.

Asked about the issues being raised by Hakeem, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said he agreed with Hargett's remarks. Reps. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, and Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, did not respond to questions about Hakeem's remarks. Carter has been ill with the coronavirus.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1. Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

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