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Judge nixes effort to open new polling site in Dodge City, Kansas

The only polling place in the Wild West historic town was moved outside city limits and more than a mile away from the nearest bus stop.
Dodge City, Kansas, Exterior View
Statue of legendary Sheriff Wyatt Earp in Dodge City, Kansas.Walter Bibikow / Getty Images

TOPEKA, Kan. — Opening a new polling site in the historic Wild West town of Dodge City just days before the election is not in the public's interest because it would likely create more voter confusion, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree denied the motion by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking a temporary court order that would have forced Ford County Clerk Deborah Cox to reopen a voting location at the old Civic Center location after she moved the city's only polling place to a site outside city limits and more than a mile from the nearest bus stop.

The judge noted that since Sept. 28, Cox notified voters of the change by letter and through the media — advertising in newspapers, on the radio and on the county's website.

"For the court to insert itself into this process on the eve of the election — by ordering the reopening of the Civic Center either as the only polling location or a second polling location — likely would create more voter confusion than it might cure," Crabtree wrote.

The only polling site for the city's now 13,000 registered voters for two decades was a civic center in a mostly white part of town. Cox decided to move the site to a new county Expo Center after learning that a construction project was planned for late October at the civic center — though work had not started as of Thursday.

The ACLU asked Crabtree to order Cox to open both the old and new polling sites for Tuesday for Election Day. The ACLU argues that moving the only polling site makes it more difficult for the city's mostly Hispanic population to vote.

Crabtree said the court has not decided whether they will ultimately succeed on their constitutional claims, and said that the court has concluded that they have not shown that they are likely to prevail on their lawsuit.

The hearing ended with Crabtree questioning Cox and her attorneys about arrangements for voters who show up at the old polling site. They said the city has offered to take voters from their homes and jobs to the new polling place, and Cox said she reached out to the city again Thursday morning about moving voters between the old and new polling sites.

"They do have a limited number of buses, however," she said.

Cox's conflict with the ACLU over the single polling site stretches back to at least May, when Johnny Dunlap, the Ford County Democratic Party chairman and a volunteer for an ACLU voting rights project, asked her to open a second polling site for Dodge City, according to testimony. Both he and Cox testified that Dunlap and her office had further run-ins during the August primary, and in October, the ACLU asked Cox to publicize a hotline for its voting rights project on her office's website.

She forwarded that request to the Kansas secretary of state's office in an Oct. 22 email saying, "LOL."

"What I really meant is, 'Here we go again. Where is it going to stop?'" Cox testified.

Crabtree wrote in his ruling he was troubled by Cox's reaction to the letter and questioned "whether it manifests a disregard for the 'fundamental significance' that our Constitution places on the right to vote."

The southwest Kansas city, located 160 miles (257 kilometers) west of Wichita, once was a destination for cattle drives where cowboys and gunslingers tangled. In recent decades, meatpacking plants have drawn to the town thousands of Hispanics, who now make up a majority of the 27,000 population.

Cox is a Republican who has served as the elected county clerk since 2016. She sent a notice to voters on Sept. 28 that she was moving the location for the upcoming election outside the city limits to the new Expo Center, which she acknowledged in the mailing was inconvenient.

The ACLU sued on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens and Alejandro Rangel-Lopez, the 18-year-old son of Mexican immigrants who will be voting for the first time in November.

Rangel-Lopez testified by phone that his father, who became a U.S. citizen in 2004, has had to wait an hour and sometimes two hours to vote at the single polling place.

As for the new polling site, he said, "It's just in the middle of nowhere."

Dunlap said that in his opinion, the city's bus system "does not have the capacity" to move potentially several thousand voters.

Cox and Bryan Caskey, the state elections director in the Kansas secretary of state's office, questioned whether Ford County would have enough time to find and program equipment, find and train election workers and make other arrangements for a second polling site. Caskey noted Kansas law requires election officials to assign each voter to only one polling place on Election Day, a further complication.

"I don't like to use the word impossible because I don't work in impossibilities. It would be extraordinarily difficult," Caskey told reporters after the hearing. "It would be even more so without violating several state laws."