published Sunday, March 18th, 2012

Polk County election commissioners investigate racial incident

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    Polk County, Tennessee, Elections Administrator Steve Gaddis

BENTON, Tenn. -- Polk County election commissioners have agreed to address a complaint alleging the use of a racial slur by a poll worker during the recent primary.

On Thursday, Oldfort, Tenn., resident Diane Wilson voiced concerns to the election commission about an incident involving her son at the South Polk Elementary School polling center on March 6.

On that day, she said, some friends took her elementary-age biracial son to the polls so he could observe the election process while they voted. She said her friends told her that an "older male" poll worker directed a racial epithet at her son while they were there.

"When the older male worker used the 'n-word,' two ladies quickly went over to the older male worker so as to quiet him or stop him," Wilson said. "This was my son's first experience at an election poll."

The problem was compounded, she told the commission, by the initial response of Election Administrator Steve Gaddis when she called him about the issue the next day.

"Mr. Gaddis' comment was -- and I quote -- 'Well, sorry, but this is the South and this happens here,'" Wilson said. "During our conversation Mr. Gaddis never asked me for my name, my telephone number or any other information."

"I asked you was it a worker or somebody standing there, and your answer was, 'I don't know who he was," Gaddis said of the earlier phone conversation.

Wilson said it was the election administrator's responsibility to find out if a poll worker had done something wrong.

"I don't have that authority," Gaddis said. "I'm not an investigator."

"If you have no control over an election poll worker and you have no concern over such things that's being said, regardless if my son was there or not, then who does?" Wilson asked.

The election commissioners said the South Polk Elementary poll workers would be invited to participate in an inquiry into the matter at next month's meeting. Gaddis said he did not have subpoena powers and could not guarantee that any or all of the workers would attend.

Election commissioners expressed concern over the incident and for the impact it could have on using county schools as polling centers. Secretary Freeman Curbow said the school superintendent could suspend their use by election officials.

Blake Fontenay, spokesman for the Tennessee secretary of state's office, said state election officials had not been notified of the complaint.

The Polk County Election Commission's next meeting is April 12.

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