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Latino-majority town in Kansas moves its lone polling site outside city limits, triggering ACLU suit

Latino-majority town in Kansas moves its lone polling site outside city limits, triggering ACLU suit
Voters in Dodge City, Kan., cast ballots during the 2004 election. (Michael Schweitzer / Associated Press)

This small Kansas town with a majority Latino population has moved its lone polling site to a tough-to-access location outside the city limits, drawing a federal lawsuit that claims the move is intended to discourage voters who have less access to transportation and don’t have flexible work schedules.

The lawsuit, filed Friday, seeks a temporary restraining order that would force Ford County to open a second voting location in Dodge City in time for the Nov. 6 election after the county sent newly registered voters an official certificate of registration that listed the wrong place to cast a ballot in the general election.

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The southwest Kansas city, located 160 miles west of Wichita, has only one polling site for its 27,000 residents. For nearly two decades, that site was at the civic center in the mostly white part of town. Citing road construction, the county moved it for the November election outside the city limits to a facility more than a mile from the nearest bus stop.

The federal lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens and voter Alejandro Rangel-Lopez, and names Ford County Clerk Deborah Cox as its defendant.

“We understand that there are people who believe voting is a privilege, but we don’t. It is a right that must be fiercely protected. We can and must do better,” Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas, said in a news release announcing the lawsuit.

Cox did not return a call for comment.

The iconic Dodge City of yesteryear embodied the romance of the American West with its cattle drives and buffalo hunters, but today this western Kansas town is 60% Latino after an influx of immigrants drawn to its two meatpacking plants.

The Wichita Eagle reported that after the ACLU initially objected to the Dodge City’s single, out-of-town location. Cox forwarded to the state an ACLU letter asking her to publicize a voter helpline.

“LOL,” she wrote in an email to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s office.

Cox told the newspaper that she didn’t mean anything when she wrote “LOL” and that the move wasn’t done with any racial intention.

The emergency motion for a temporary restraining order asks the court to order Cox to reopen the original polling location at the Civic Center in town as a second site to avoid voter confusion by new voters who received an official registration notice that listed only their regular polling site — not the temporary site for the November election.

The ACLU argued in its filing that the court order was necessary to remedy the misinformation Cox sent to newly registered voters and to ensure all residents can access the polling location.

Dodge City’s only polling site services more than 13,000 voters in the area, compared with an average of 1,200 voters per polling site at other locations.

ACLU contends that the county’s actions have a discriminatory impact on Latino voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act because they are less likely than their white counterparts to have access to a vehicle and they tend to have lower incomes and work in industries with less flexible schedules.

Alejandro Rangel-Lopez, a Dodge City high school student who turns 18 this month, will be a new voter in the upcoming election. As the named plaintiff in the lawsuit, he wrote in an affidavit that exercising his right to vote holds a special significance for him because his parents were immigrants who came to the United States at great personal sacrifice so he could be a U.S. citizen.

“My vote is important to me because it extends beyond myself,” he said. “It presents the opportunity to speak on behalf of immigrants like my parents were, young people, and other members of my community who do not have the right to vote. My civic participation is for all of them.”

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The lawsuit seeks a judgment declaring the decision to move the only polling place in Dodge City to a largely inaccessible location on the outskirts of town illegal and unconstitutional.

In addition to the emergency order for the November election, it also seeks a permanent injunction requiring the county to open polling locations that are accessible by public transportation.

A top Democratic legislator called on Cox to resign. Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley was particularly offended by her “LOL” message, calling it “despicable” and suggesting it demonstrated bias against Latino voters.

“I think she’s shown that she’s incapable of providing any sort of fair and meaningful public service,” Hensley said. “I absolutely believe she should resign.”

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