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 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 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mostly in the South, to get federal approval before changing election procedures; opponents said that requirement was outdated because of the nation’s racial progress since the 1960s.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.