Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Politics

Candidates: Clerk in Panhandle town suppressed black voters

SOPCHOPPY — A small Panhandle town best known for its annual Worm Gruntin' Festival is at the center of an investigation into charges the white city clerk suppressed the black vote in an election where the black mayor lost by a single vote and a black city commissioner was also ousted.

Both losing candidates and three black voters have filed complaints, now being investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, that City Clerk Jackie Lawhon made it more difficult for blacks to cast ballots by questioning their residency.

The candidates also allege Lawhon abandoned her duty to remain neutral and actively campaigned for the three whites on the ballot.

"If the allegations that we have are 100 percent accurate, then this election was literally stolen from us, and I really feel like there should be another election," said Anginita Rosier, who lost her seat on the commission by 26 votes.

Lawhon, who has served in her position since being appointed more than three decades ago, referred calls to city attorney Dan Cox. He would not comment on the specifics of the complaints.

The allegations about the June 11 election were made about two weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. That provision required several states and other jurisdictions, mostly in the South, to get federal approval before changing election procedures; opponents said that requirement was outdated because of the nation's racial progress since the 1960s.

Preventing anyone from voting because of race remains illegal under state and federal law.

Sopchoppy, with fewer than 500 people, sits on the edge of a national forest about 35 miles southwest of Tallahassee. Whites outnumber blacks about 3-to-1. Sopchoppy boasts one grocery store, two gas stations and seven churches.

The biggest excitement Sopchoppy sees is the annual Worm Gruntin' Festival, a tribute to local folks who make their living by going into the forest, hammering a wooden stake into the ground and rubbing it with a metal slab. The vibrations drive worms to the surface, where they are gathered for bait.

Several people approached outside the grocery store said they voted but claimed not to know of any problems. Even the black former mayor, Colleen Skipper-Mitchell, wouldn't answer questions.

Five candidates ran for three seats on the city commission. The top three vote-getters were the winners. Eddie Evans received 89 votes, Nathan Lewis 75 and Glenn Rudd 66. There were 65 ballots cast for Skipper-Mitchell and 40 for Rosier. Voters could select up to three candidates.

Rosier pointed to a larger-than-normal turnout and a higher rate of absentee voting compared with previous years. She asserted that Lawhon and other city workers worked to drive up the vote against her and Skipper-Mitchell.

A total of 121 ballots were cast compared with 45 the year before, 59 in 2011 and 79 in 2010. There were 44 absentee ballots this year, compared with seven last year and the year before and 10 in 2010.

But while absentee ballots spiked, they did so among both whites and blacks.

Skipper-Mitchell and Rosier say Lawhon should have been neutral since she was running the election. Instead, Rosier says, Lawhon called white voters to encourage them to vote absentee for the white candidates and offered to deliver ballots to them.

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