A federal judge has ruled that Dodge City’s elections don’t discriminate against Latinos

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A federal judge has ruled that a Latino majority’s voting rights aren’t violated by the election system in the former Wild West town in Kansas that inspired the long-running television series “Gunsmoke.”

U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren concluded that Dodge City’s practice of electing all five of its city commissioners at large does not prevent candidates backed by Latino voters from holding office. He issued his decision Wednesday evening in a lawsuit filed in 2022 by two Latino residents who argued that the system is discriminatory and violated both the U.S. Constitution and the landmark 1965 federal Voting Rights Act.

The two residents, Miguel Coca and Alejandro Rangel-Lopez, argued that the city should be required to have each commissioner elected from a separate district. About 64% of the city’s 27,000 residents are Latino, and it’s possible that Latinos would be a majority of residents in three of five single-member districts.

Their lawsuit argued that the city hadn’t elected a Latino commissioner since at least 2000, though a commissioner serving in 2022 said he is Latino. Melgren concluded that a review of local elections since 2014 showed that candidates backed by the highest percentages of Latino voters, including non-Latino ones, won “at least half of the time.”

“The Court cannot conclude that white bloc voting prevents Latino-preferred candidates from being elected most of the time,” Melgren wrote.

Dodge City, about 320 miles (515 kilometers) southwest of Kansas City, Missouri, draws thousands of tourists each year because of its wild history in the 1870s and early 1880s and the images of saloons, cowboys and gunfights created by the stories about fictional U.S. Marshal Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke” in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It’s also home to a state-owned casino.

Growth in the meatpacking industry in southwestern Kansas transformed the area by drawing job-seeking immigrants. Seven of the eight Kansas communities identified by the 2020 U.S. census as majority Latino are in the region.

The city issued a statement Thursday saying that Melgren’s ruling “recognizes our effort to represent everyone who makes Dodge City their home” and said the city commission seeks to build “a stronger, more vibrant, and diverse community where all viewpoints are valued.”

“It is unfortunate that we have spent significant taxpayer dollars to defend our position, taking away from our ability to utilize the funds to make our community better,” the statement said.

The two residents’ attorneys said they presented “clear evidence” that the system violated the Voting Rights Act. Their legal team included the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, the ACLU’s national Voting Rights Project and UCLA’s Voting Rights Project.

“We are currently exploring next steps in this case and will continue to work for a truly representative democracy that ensures Latino voters can have their voices heard in Dodge City,” they said in a statement Thursday.

The ACLU also sued the top local elections official in 2018 after she moved Dodge City’s only polling site outside of the city. The suit argued that doing so made it more difficult for Latino residents who often rely on public transportation to vote. The lawsuit was dismissed after the elections clerk agreed to maintain two polling sites for future elections.

Melgren did conclude that Coca and Rangel-Lopez showed that Dodge City’s Latino population is large enough and concentrated enough in certain parts of the city to control at least one hypothetical commission district. An expert presented 14 proposed maps in which Latinos were a majority in three of the five districts.

The judge also concluded that the plaintiffs also showed that Latinos in Dodge City “vote in significant numbers for the same candidates.”

But Melgren noted that a test set decades ago by the U.S. Supreme Court required the two Dodge City residents to demonstrate that Latino voters “usually” cannot elect candidates they prefer.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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