A federal judge has ruled that Ford County, Kansas, does not have to provide a second polling place in Dodge City on Election Day.
In a ruling late Thursday, U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree denied a request for a temporary restraining order filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in late October on behalf of a Dodge City resident and a Latino community organization.
The complaint argued that by closing the city’s only polling place and moving it to the edge of town, Ford County Clerk Deborah Cox infringed on the constitutionally protected voting rights of Dodge City’s Latino voters.
In his written decision, Crabtree said opening the original polling place would not be in the public interest, considering possible confusion caused by reassigning voters to another location so soon before the election.
Crabtree also said the ACLU did not provide sufficient evidence that having a single polling location placed an undue burden on the residents of the city.
“They have had 20 years to present that claim,” Crabtree wrote. Dodge City has had only one polling place for 27,000 residents since 1998.
The judge cited Ford County testimony that described multiple notices of the new polling place, and the free transportation Dodge City will provide to the polling place on Election Day.
In a court hearing on Thursday, the ACLU amended its request in the temporary restraining order, asking the judge to either force Ford County to reopen the original polling location in addition to the new location, or instead of the new location.
This story was updated on Nov. 2, 2018 at 9:15 a.m. to reflect the results of the judge's ruling. Original story continues below.
With Election Day fast approaching, the decision to force the opening of a second polling place in a western Kansas town of 27,000 people rests on the desk of a federal judge.
Ford County Clerk Deborah Cox drew international attention after closing Dodge City’s only polling place and moving it across train tracks and 3.7 miles away, on the outskirts of town.
Local activists complained that the decision made it much more difficult to vote in a town where many Latino residents don’t have cars and citizens already saw prohibitively long lines on Election Day.
Last month, the Kansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens and 18-year-old Dodge City resident Alejandro Rangel-Lopez. The organization asked a judge to grant a temporary restraining order and reopen the original polling place at the Dodge City Civic Center.
In a Thursday hearing in federal district court in Topeka, the ACLU argued the decision to move the polling place to the Western State Bank Expo Center unfairly hurt Latinos who make up the majority of Dodge City. Lawyers asked District Judge Daniel Crabtree to order the county to return the polling place to the Civic Center, or use both the Civic Center and the Expo Center on Election Day.
“Reopening the Civic Center is the only way to alleviate the confusion,” said ACLU lawyer Lauren Bonds.
Lawyers for the county said it would be impossible to reopen a polling place at the Civic Center while also complying with state law regarding polling places. For instance, state law says voters must be notified of polling place locations 30 days before an election.
The county’s legal team also argued that there was no proof the move had a disproportionate or discriminatory impact on the Latino community.
“The burden has been extremely exaggerated,” said Bradley Schlozman, representing Cox.
Judge Daniel Crabtree said he planned to act quickly on the case, but was not specific about the timing.
If he grants the restraining order, the county plans to appeal. If Crabtree decides not to grant the order, ACLU lawyers say they will not appeal the decision. Rather, they would file another challenge after Election Day.
Witnesses for the ACLU said the town’s Latino voters, many of whom are immigrant meatpacking plant workers who have become citizens, already felt uncomfortable at the old location in the Civic Center. It’s located in a predominantly white part of town.
The new location, they argued, is worse because it’s not accessible by public transportation, which many Latino residents rely on.
“It’s not in a Hispanic neighborhood, it’s not in a white neighborhood, it’s in the middle of nowhere,” said Rangel-Lopez, who testified by phone.
Madai Rivera, the Kansas director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, also testified. She said the challenges faced by Dodge City Latino voters might be difficult for those outside the community, including Cox, to understand. Rivera said the normal burdens of voting pose even more difficulty for lower-income people who work hourly jobs and can’t afford to leave a shift, find a ride across town and wait in a long line.
“Some members who have voted in the past have expressed that the processes can be a little lengthy,” she said.
State elections director Bryan Caskey testified for Ford County, saying logistical issues would make it difficult to open another location before Election Day. The county would need to print poll books, inform voters about the change and divide the city’s electorate between the two locations.
“It is not advisable,” Caskey said. “There are several challenges that need to be met in a very short time.”
Ford County’s attorneys rejected the idea that voters would be inconvenienced or deterred. They emphasized that the Dodge City government had agreed to provide free, door-to-door transportation to the new polling place. They also rejected the claims of discrimination.
During the hearing, Cox claimed she didn’t recognize either a Latino or a white part of town.
She said: “They are my voters.”
Nomin Ujiyediin is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @NominUJ.
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