A call by state Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, for the Tennessee secretary of state to investigate a "laundry list" of "troubling" allegations at the Hamilton County Election Commission less than three weeks before the start of early voting sounds suspicious to us.
If the office, as the lawmaker alleged, was "becoming a petri dish for the undermining of the fundamental right to free and fair elections," we would want that immediately rooted out and corrective practices put into place. However, we suspect this is an effort to string together an anecdotal incident here, unproven allegations there and combine them with run-of-the-mill complaints by a party out of power that it isn't being given its due.
Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett said in a news release he would be sending Hakeem a letter, but added "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."
Local election commission members, he said, 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."
The release promised no investigation, neither did it say there wouldn't be one.
One of the complaints Hakeem alleged was of "discriminatory hiring practices of both permanent and part-time workers." The election commission, he said, 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."
Included with Hargett's news release was a breakdown by party of Hamilton County poll officials for the Nov. 3 election. In a majority Republican county, it showed 37 Republican officers of election (50% of the total), 33 Democratic officers of election (44% of the total) and two nonpartisan officers of election (6% of the total).
It did not include a racial breakdown of poll officials, but if poll officials were to mimic Hamilton County's population there would be 13 Black officials out of the 72 total and three Hispanic officials.
We can't imagine how hard it is every election to hire competent staff and temporary employees while trying to balance party affiliation and racial breakdown. If the office even comes close to some of those numbers, those doing the hiring have done yeoman's work.
Other Hakeem complaints were of general accessibility of polling locations, the need to have more early voting locations and hours to accommodate working people. The same complaints have been made in the past, examined by election officials and been found wanting.
We believe, in fact, the early-voting opportunities are especially generous for Hamilton Countians, with the Election Commission open 8 a.m.-7 p.m. on weekdays, three other sites open weekdays 10 a.m.-6 p.m., and all four locations open on Saturday.
Hakeem also said there have been questions about whether the commission has been given adequate funding by Hamilton County.
In his news release, Hargett answered that. The office is properly funded and is receiving the support it needs from Hamilton County commissioners.
Just last week, Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Martin said Friday, the commission passed two resolutions to give the commission $375,721 for this year's election on top of what it normally gets from local taxpayers.
"How anyone could say we have not provided enough resources is beyond me," he said. "It speaks of political posturing with a narrative that is not based on facts but fear. Sadly, politically based narratives seem to gain more traction than the truth. Elected officials should be more responsible when accusing others of failing in their duty."
We are further flummoxed by the complaints from the state representative and former longtime Chattanooga city councilman because he wrote the secretary of state and made his letter public apparently without checking on his own to see if any of the allegations were true.
Hakeem, instead, said he "started at the top." He said he "did not communicate with the county."
He further said he had no way of verifying the complaints himself, but a few calls to state and county officials — and he should know them all after being in the public employ for nearly 30 years — might have alleviated at least some of them.
Hakeem also said he understood the county conducted a human resources report, and he guessed it was to evaluate fair hiring practices at the election commission. But he said he had not seen the results, and he said "that report has not seen the light of day."
He understood there was a report? He hasn't seen the results?
Public officials making serious allegations on the likes of hiring practices should never do so without having evidence to back them up. Without evidence, they look weak, desperate and partisan.
If there truly are unfair practices at the election commission, we want to see them stopped. But we're afraid in this case Hakeem is trying to spin trampled straw into political gold.
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