A few days before the November midterm election, Alejandro Rangel-Lopez turned 18.
But before he cast that first ballot, local election officials moved Dodge City’s only polling location from the relatively convenient center town to its outskirts.
The move caused confusion, drew national criticism and raised questions about voting access governed by white elected officials in a town where nearly two-thirds of the population is Latino.
The new polling location was not along a bus route. Many of Dodge City’s Latino and low-income residents rely on public transportation.
This week, Rangel-Lopez testified to a U.S. House committee on Capitol Hill in favor of a sweeping federal bill that would require that certain polling places be near public transit, minimum voting notices when polling locations are changed and that would attempt to improve the security of voting systems.
Rangel-Lopez said when the polling place was changed, he thought it “would negatively impact, not only me, but also a lot of people in our community, especially minority and low-income people.”
“That’s why I decided to, to speak up against it, and get involved in the fight to get more polling locations in dodge city,” he said from D.C.
The polling location change came at the direction of Ford County Clerk Debbie Cox.
She announced in September that the Dodge City Civic Center would not be used because of anticipated construction.
Cox then designated the Western State Bank Expo Center as the new voting location. Following the move, new voter cards were mailed with incorrect vocation location information — listing the Civic Center as the new voting place instead of the Expo Center.
After attempting to meet with Cox several times about opening additional polling places, the American Civil Liberties Union Kansas filed a lawsuit before the election on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens and Rangel-Lopez.
Because the Civic Center had been operating as the town’s polling place since 1998, the complaint contended that the new voting location created a burden for voters.
Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, said the bill pending in Congress aims to protect against voter suppression.
“Cutbacks to early voting, shutting down polling places, purging eligible voters in the roles, all put barriers to participation to our elections,” Lofgren said. “And certainly we have issues with, technical matters relative to voting and voting machines.”
Rep. Rodney Davis, an Illinois Republican, objected to campaign finance provisions in the bill that he said would favor Democrats over Republicans. “One-sided election reform is not the way to create positive and effective change for our nation’s elected election system,” he said.
The bill would also require that presidential and vice-presidential candidates submit tax returns.
Rangel-Lopez told the committee that people in Dodge City had warned about problems with its single voting location.
“Community members have voiced concerns to the county clerk about having only one polling site, but their words fell on deaf ears,” he said. “While we were unsuccessful in finding relief for the midterms, it played a pivotal role in pushing her to open the two new polling sites ... located inside the city limits.”
The ACLU dropped the lawsuit last month when the county clerk announced plans to open two polling places with temporary bus routes for upcoming elections.
Madaí Rivera, who heads the Latino group included in the lawsuit, said in an email that she was pleased by Cox’s decision.
“I have visited both places, the Hoover Pavilion and Knights of Columbus Hall for various events,” the email said. “It is most definitely encouraging news.”
In addition to the ACLU’s involvement with Dodge City polling places, resident Johnny Dunlap said he’s been working to address the single site for years. Dunlap began speaking to the county clerk about more voting locations in 2017.
In a May 2018 meeting with Cox, Dunlap said she would not agree to open any new voting locations. Dunlap said there was plenty of time for her to add a site, get a notice out to voters.
“It was still enough time for her to make a significant change without too much fuss,” he said.
Ford County primary elections will take place on August 6. Dunlap said Dodge City is working with Cox on bus transportation and bilingual services.
“There are good things coming out of this,” he said. “I just hope that this is not where it ends because it’s not enough.”
Corinne Boyer is a reporter based in Garden City for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and HPPR covering health, education and politics. Follow her @Corinne_Boyer.
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