ACLU sues Dodge City over voting access for Hispanics

FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2004, file photo, a group of voters fill out their ballots at a table rather than wait for an empty voting booth at the Civic Center in Dodge City, Kan. After moving Dodge City, Kansas' sole polling site outside city limits, local election officials sent newly registered voters an official certificate of registration that lists the wrong place to cast a ballot in the midterm election. It is the latest election snafu to surface in this iconic Wild West town where Hispanics now make up the majority of the population. (Michael Schweitzer/Dodge City Daily Globe via AP, File)

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Moving the only polling site in Dodge City, Kansas, outside the city limits will make it more difficult for the city’s majority Hispanic population to vote because they tend to have less access to transportation and flexible work schedules, according to a federal lawsuit filed Friday.

The lawsuit also seeks a temporary restraining order that would force Ford County to open a second voting location in Dodge City 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.

The southwest Kansas city, located 160 miles (257 kilometers) 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,” said Micah Cubic, executive director of the ACLU in a news release announcing the lawsuit.

Cox did not immediately 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 percent Hispanic 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 help. “LOL,” she wrote in an email to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s office.

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

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 Dodge City area, compared to an average of 1,200 voters per polling site at other locations.

ACLU contends the county’s actions have a discriminatory impact on Hispanic voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act because they are less likely than their white counterparts to have access to a vehicle, 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.”

The lawsuit seeks a judgment declaring the decision to move the only polling place in Dodge City to an inaccessible location on the outskirts of town is 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 Hispanic 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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Associated Press Writer John Hanna in Topeka contributed to this report.

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