TOPEKA — The American Civil Liberties Union on Friday escalated its dispute over voter access in Dodge City, filing a complaint in federal court that challenges the closure of the only polling site within city limits.
A single polling place a mile outside of town now serves the 13,000 registered voters in a community where the population is 60 percent Hispanic, raising concerns about the motivation for switching locations in advance of the Nov. 6 election.
The legal action — filed on behalf of League of United Latin American Citizens and high school student Alejandro Rangel-Lopez — challenges the decision by Ford County Clerk Deborah Cox to move the town's only polling location on the basis of a planned construction project. The ACLU asks the court to force Cox to re-open an in-town location.
"Cox’s decision to move the polling site outside of Dodge City is as baseless as it is burdensome," the ACLU argued in court documents. "Cox purportedly moved the city’s only voting location out of town because construction in the area would compromise voter safety. ... However, the construction has not stopped USD 443, who owns the Civic Center, from using the building for large capacity events the same week as the election."
Additionally, the ACLU contends, the change will create confusion because registered voters already received a notice telling them to vote at the former location.
The Wichita Eagle reported Friday that when the ACLU objected to her decision earlier this month, Cox responded with an "LOL" in an email to the secretary of state's office.
Voting access in Dodge City already was a concern. For two decades, the ACLU said, long lines have been common at the single polling site, but it was centrally located and generally accessible. There is no public transportation to the new site, which requires voters to cross railroad tracks that are blocked by trains for 15-20 minutes at a time.
Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU in Kansas, said the situation was "outrageous in every respect." The average precinct in Kansas has 1,200 voters, he said.
"The new location is outrageous, the size of the precinct is outrageous, and for that matter, the fact that there are no non-white elected officials in Ford County, which is majority minority, tells you something as well," Kubic said.
Bryan Caskey, the state’s election director, said the secretary of state's office doesn't think having just one polling site is an issue. He wasn't familiar with the lawsuit but said the Dodge City location in the past has been staffed accordingly with multiple tables and machines.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Democrat from Wichita, said voting access in Dodge City was especially concerning given the closeness of the gubernatorial race. Polls consistently show Republican Kris Kobach, who oversees elections as the secretary of state, tied with state Sen. Laura Kelly, a Democrat from Topeka. Less than 5 percent of voters remain undecided in the final weeks of the campaign.
"In an election that may be decided by as few as 300 to 400 votes, every time you make it harder to vote, every time you place challenges before people to vote, could swing an election in a wrong and improper way," Ward said.
The ACLU complaint said Rangel-Lopez is a senior at Dodge City High School who wants to vote for the first time this year. His class schedule won't allow him to vote before school, and he is worried he will be late for work if he tries to vote after school. He needs the money to pay for gas and braces.
"Rangel-Lopez believes an additional polling location in town would make it easier for him and other Dodge City High School students to attend all of their classes, participate in after school activities, and vote," the lawsuit said.
Katie Moore contributed to this report.