SOPCHOPPY – A small Florida Panhandle town best known for its annual Worm Grunting Festival is at the center of an investigation into charges the white city clerk suppressed the black vote in an election in which 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 but said, “I don’t think that anything was done that was out of line.”
The allegations were made about two weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. That provision required several states and other jurisdictions, mostly in the South, including five Florida counties, to get federal approval before changing election procedures; opponents said that requirement was outdated because of the nation’s racial progress since the 1960s.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 Florida and federal law. But if the claims in this Southern town of fewer than 500 people are substantiated, activists are likely to seize on the case as an example of how racial discrimination at the polls has not been eradicated – and why protections like those overturned by the Supreme Court should remain in place.
`”The League of Women Voters is on a really high alert regarding the situation,” said the group’s state chapter President Deirdre Macnab. “These kinds of situations should make it clear to all Americans how important it is for Congress to act definitively and quickly to ensure with confidence that the rights of all voters are protected in both big cities and small towns across America.”
At the very least, Macnab said, she has concerns that the Sopchoppy City Hall staff and not the Wakulla County supervisor of elections office handled the ballots in the June 11 election.
Sopchoppy sits on the edge of a national forest about 35 miles southwest of Tallahassee. Whites outnumber blacks about 3-1. Other than cars zipping along U.S. 319 that leads to the Gulf Coast beaches, little traffic passes by the kudzu-draped utility lines. The town boasts one grocery store, two gas stations and seven churches.
The biggest excitement Sopchoppy sees is the annual Worm Grunting 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 and sold as fishing 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. Thirteen blacks cast absentee ballots this year. In the previous three elections, a total of three absentee ballots were cast by blacks, all in 2011, according to records provided by Wakulla County’s elections chief.
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.
Whites “were basically told how to vote and who to vote for,” Rosier said.
All three black voters who filed complaints said they were questioned about their addresses and were told they couldn’t vote because they didn’t live within city limits. They insisted they did.
Willie Mae Stevens said she was eventually allowed to vote, Wilton Booth said he was given a provisional ballot that was never counted and Thomas Rosier, who is Anginita Rosier’s great-uncle, said he was turned away. “I told them to their face, ‘Y’all act like you don’t want these black folks to vote but I’ve got a right to vote just like everybody else.’ I fussed on,” Stevens said in an interview. “They eventually let me vote. It took me 20, it might have been 30, minutes.”
The three new commissioners were sworn in July. All said they were unaware of any problems with the election process and expressed confidence in the results. Rosier, though, said she is troubled by what she’s heard before, during and since the election.
“I was even approached by a gentleman who told me that if I ever wanted to go back into another political office that I may not want to make this issue look racial,” she said. “My response to him was I would much rather go down in history for taking a stand against a wrong and an injustice that’s been done to someone than to sit in public office and turn a blinded eye when I know that people’s rights are being violated.”
• Picture above Colleen Skipper-Mitchell