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How an Alabama town without ballot boxes has two mayors

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

There's a legal battle brewing in a small town in Alabama. And the question at the center - who is the mayor of Newbern? In a federal lawsuit filed last year, Patrick Braxton alleges he was the only candidate to file for mayor in 2020. Braxton, who is Black, says he has been obstructed from assuming office by the previous mayor, who's white, this whole time. And there's another thing to note. Newbern hasn't had a local election in years. Kyle Whitmire is a columnist at al.com and has been following this, and he joins us now. Hi, Kyle.

KYLE WHITMIRE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: So, Kyle, Newbern is a town of fewer than 200 people. And as I was just pointing out, it hasn't had an election in years, which seems a little strange to me. But why is that?

WHITMIRE: Well, no one there can remember there ever having been an election. I mean, it is a small town. The town is about 80% Black, about 20% white, just slightly fewer than 200 people. And for as long as anybody can remember, control of this town has sort of been handed down like a family heirloom. And, you know, because of the history of this place, that's been mostly white people handing control to white people. The previous mayor, who's still claiming to be mayor, Woody Stokes - he's actually Woody Stokes III. The previous mayor before him was Woody Stokes Jr. And that was never really disrupted until Patrick Braxton decided he wanted to run for mayor.

SUMMERS: OK, let's dig into this conflict a bit. Patrick Braxton, who filed the lawsuit, alleges that he is the mayor of Newbern. Can you tell us a little bit more about him?

WHITMIRE: He is a contractor and a volunteer fireman and decided, well, maybe he could run this town better than the people who were in charge. So what happened is initially, Patrick Braxton is the only candidate to qualify in any of the elections for town council or for mayor. And he is recognized as the mayor. Well, typically, when there's a vacancy on a town council, the mayor gets to appoint someone to fill that vacancy. Well, this lame duck council - they call a special election in which they all qualify this time. But curiously, neither Patrick Braxton nor anybody else heard of this election, knew there was going to be an election. And all of those four candidates claim to have won by default. Now, understand that this is a town that is 1.5 square miles in size. This is not a town where it's easy to keep a secret. But somehow the first election that anyone has ever had in this place just sort of slid by without anybody noticing. It stretches credulity to believe it.

SUMMERS: So you've mentioned what you've heard from Patrick Braxton, who filed this lawsuit alleging that he's the mayor. But what about Stokes or the previous administration? What have you heard from them?

WHITMIRE: They are radio silent except for what they, you know, are filing in court. There's not a lot of dispute over the facts. There is some dispute over the law and whether their special-called election was legal or not. You know, the hardest thing outside of this town is why does something like this matter, right? And, you know, we understand voting rights as something that affects presidential races, but it also affects whose streets get cleaned up first after a storm, whether your trash pickup is working appropriately. Those are concerns, frankly, that affect people more directly sometimes than who the president of the United States is. And, you know, voting rights matter. Your ability to go into a voting booth and choose who represents you matters as much for your town council in a town of fewer than 200 people as it does for president of the United States.

SUMMERS: Kyle Whitmire of al.com. Thank you.

WHITMIRE: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LADY WRAY SONG, "GET READY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.