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SOPCHOPPY, Fla. — A small Florida Panhandle town is at the center of an investigation into charges that 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 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 that 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 US 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mostly in the South, to get federal approval before changing election procedures; opponents said that requirement was outdated because of the nation’s racial progress since the 1960s.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. 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 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 City Hall staff and not the Wakulla County supervisor of elections office handled the ballots in the June 11 election.

Sopchoppy is on the edge of a national forest about 35 miles southwest of Tallahassee. Whites outnumber blacks about 3 to 1. Other than cars zipping along US 319 that leads to the Gulf Coast beaches, little traffic passes by the kudzu-draped utility lines. Sopchoppy has one grocery store, two gas stations, and seven churches.

Several people approached outside the grocery store said they voted but said they did not know of any problems. Even the black former mayor, Colleen Skipper-Mitchell, declined to 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.