Fifty-two miles down U.S. Highway 50 from Garden City, voter suppression allegations concerning Dodge City’s single, distant polling place have garnered national attention, criticism and a federal lawsuit.
After raising issue last week with how the city’s lone polling place located on the edge of town would impact voters’ rights and access, especially those of the majority Hispanic population, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas sued the City of Dodge City Friday and called for the opening of a second polling place in Ford County.
Small numbers of polling places are not uncommon in southwest Kansas. Seward and Pratt counties will each offer two polling locations on Election Day. This year, Finney County will offer seven polling places, six in Garden City and one in Holcomb — less than half than it provided in recent years but still far more than regional counties of similar size.
And as far as Finney county commissioners, Finney County Clerk Dori Munyan, Garden City Mayor Roy Cessna and Holcomb Mayor Brian Rupp have seen or heard from constituents, the county is doing an adequate job of providing voter access.
In 2014, Munyan, who became county clerk in January, said the county funded and staffed 15 polling locations in Garden City, Holcomb, Plymell, Pierceville and Kalvesta. Between then and 2016, the county cut the number to eight, eliminating the rural polling places and several within Garden City.
Organizing polling places is a balance of maximizing voter accessibility while effectively using taxpayer money, said Finney County Commissioner Lon Pishny, and the rural locations especially were too sparsely used to justify paying poll workers to hold steady in the area for 12 hours. County Commissioner Bill Clifford said centralizing the locations in or near Garden City also meant county clerk employees could quickly drive to poll workers if there was need for on-site help.
Since the cuts, all rural precincts, save Holcomb, are served in the Finney County 4-H Building in Garden City.
The county is often on the lookout for consolidation, Pishny said. Just this year, the county moved forward with plans from last year to reduce the number of polling places to seven when the facility at Bible Christian Church was no longer large enough, Munyan said.
“I think there is room for consideration of additional consolidation, but not at the risk of eliminating accessibility for people or decreasing accessibility. But, I think that the moves that have been made at this point all have been positive,” Pishny said.
Munyan, Pishny, Clifford, Cessna, and County Commissioner Dave Jones said they believe the current number of polling places is enough to accomodate Finney County, and Rupp said one location was plenty for Holcomb.
Dallas Crist, vice chair of the Finney County Republicans and Mark Cottrell, treasurer of the Finney County Democrats, said they had also not heard any issues or concerns from locals, Crist saying the county made “every effort” to be fair to residents.
Cottrell said he felt the county was offering enough polling places, particularly when compared to Liberal and Dodge City, and appreciated the efforts from the county clerk’s office to provide more options for Finney County voters.
Following the county’s 15.8 percent voter turnout in the 2018 primaries, the clerk’s office has made strides to better educate and accommodate voters. For the first time, the office has held extended hours on select days for voter registration and advance in-person voting, including next week from 8 a.m.-7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 1 and from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 3.
The office has also posted voter education information on the clerk's website and social media in English and Spanish, and reached out to the Garden City High School Buffalo Broadcasting System to produce informative videos about voter registration ahead of the election.
Munyan reminds voters that if they face an issue on Election Day, they can always submit a provisional ballot to be later assessed by the county.
“I feel like we’ve made a lot of positive changes … just trying to educate and communicate with the community more,” Munyan said.
Christi Graber of the League of Women Voters said the options the clerk’s office was providing were terrific, and appreciated efforts to educate voters and make it easier to access the polls.
“I quote (Kansas Secretary of State Republican candidate) Scott Schwab who was in town and met with Dori when he was out here campaigning, and his observation that … she’s one of the best clerks in the state of Kansas, from his perspective. And I would echo that,” Pishny said.
Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas, said the seven polling places, extended hours and bilingual services were commendable, but counties could always do more. Finney County residents were not submitting complaints to the same level that Ford County residents were, he said, but he couldn’t say with certainty that there were no issues.
Early voting was often available for shorter time periods in rural counties, and expanding those time frames could greatly benefit voters, he said. He said county clerks should focus on increasing voter participation through outreach efforts that explained voting options, including mailed ballots. County commissioners could advocate for statewide voter accessibility measures, like election day registration, or speak out against voter injustices in nearby counties. Essentially, he said, counties should make voting as easy as possible, rather than creating barriers.
If residents have concerns or are running into such barriers, they should call the ACLU’s Election Protection Hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE, he said.
Other issues, like civics education and voter ID accessibility for immigrants and new citizens, can stand to be addressed closer to home, said Amy Longa, former Garden City International Rescue Committee site manager.
Kansas’ 105 counties are a “patchwork quilt of policies” when it came to voter rights and access, Kubic said. Making and continuing to make strides on a local level was a step in the right direction, he said, but the bigger picture, where the ease at which a Kansas voter could cast their vote was largely determined by the county they lived in, is still in flux and, as always, in need of attention.
Advance voting is available now at the Finney County Clerk’s Office until noon Monday, Nov. 5 and the polls will be open from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. on Election Day on Nov. 6. Check the Finney County Elections website for further information and take advantage of the page's interactive map to locate your polling place.
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