Local organizers in Dodge City fought for more, and more accessible, polling places even before their lone, out-of-the-way voting location drew national attention.
On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union sued County Clerk Debbie Cox.
In September after the summer primary, Cox moved the town’s only polling location to a building south of the city limits, citing concerns about construction at the old site. The new site isn't accessible by sidewalks. Train tracks separate it from much of the city.
Additionally, the ACLU says Cox sent out a flyer reminding registered voters about Election Day that listed the wrong address for the city’s one polling place.
But some Dodge City residents contend that relying on a single polling place for all the voters in a community of 27,000 caused problems even before it was moved from the local civic center closer to the center of town.
Johnny Dunlap, head of the Ford County Democrats, recounted his father’s trip to the civic center during a past election as a sign the county needs to expand its voting access.
Dunlap’s father, also named Johnny Dunlap, has a bad knee and hip from his service in Vietnam. Dunlap said his 70-year-old father went to the civic center and waited for as long as he could. Frustrated, the veteran walked to the front, telling poll workers he had to fill out his ballot immediately because his injuries made it impossible to keep standing in line.
“If there had been more polling places, the line would have been shorter and that wouldn’t have been something that he had to do,” Dunlap said. “And there are others in worse shape than he is.”
Cox, the county clerk, told the Dodge City Daily Globe that the Dodge City Civic Center became the city’s only voting location in 2002 to better comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Both Dunlap and the ACLU take issue with that assertion, pointing out that local school district buildings are ADA accessible and could be used as additional polling locations.
On Friday evening, County Administrator J.S. Gilbert issued a statement saying that city has had a single polling place “for more than two decades” and that the old location would soon be used as a staging area for a construction project.
The statement said the new location is “insured to cover crowds, is designed for large crowds specifically, has adequate parking, is fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and is already part of the county’s operations and planning in relation to severe weather and security response. There was no intent whatsoever to discriminate against any group of voters in the selection of this location, nor will its use have the effect of discriminating any group of voters. Suggestions to the contrary are meritless.”
Alejandro Rangel-Lopez, founder of the Dodge City High School Young Democrats and the plaintiff in the ACLU’s lawsuit, said local Democrats are focusing on finding ways to get people to their polling places. He said many people don’t even know the polling location has moved, even as they’re pushing information about free rides out through the radio and through social media.
The ACLU has also filed a request for a temporary restraining order to get an additional voting site opened up in Dodge City.
But it’s the recent move of the one remaining location from the Civic Center to the Western State Bank Expo Center that put Dodge City’s voting woes in front of a national audience. Democrats cite it as an example of voter suppression by Republicans. Some have stepped in to bolster their images by sponsoring rides to the polls on Election Day.
Kaitlyn Carl, communications manager at the ride-sharing company Lyft, said the company is partnering with the nonprofit Voto Latino to distribute discount codes for a free ride to the polls on Election Day. Voters nationwide can also get half off rides to their polling places.
She declined to say how many drivers Lyft has in Dodge City, but said it plans to have rides available on Nov. 6. Carl said Lyft’s free and discounted rides are only for Election Day, not advance voting.
Dodge City Public Transportation is also offering free rides to the Western State Bank Expo Center on Nov. 6. The center’s website has details in English and Spanish on how to schedule free rides. And a local labor union is providing rides to early voting.
The Dodge City Daily Globe reported Ford County is extending early voting hours beginning Oct. 30. Advance in-person voting began Oct. 18 at the Ford County Government Center, with polls open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. On Oct. 30th and Nov. 1st, those hours will be extended until 7 p.m.
But even early voting, and rides to the polls, might not make it feasible for some Dodge City residents to cast a ballot in person.
Rangel-Lopez said workers at the city’s meat-packing plant had had trouble getting to the polling place even when it was more centrally located. He said workers on the first shift at the plant are at work from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. That makes it impossible to vote before work, when polls aren’t open yet, and then after work, kids are out of school, and need to be picked up and look after.
“My dad personally has waited at least an hour every single election to vote — when it was at the civic center,” he said. “A lot of people can’t make a quick trip that lasts 15 to 30 minutes waiting in line and then casting their ballot — they have to plan their day out, they have to make sure they have someone to take care of their kids.”
Meanwhile, people across the country have expressed their outrage at Dodge City’s voting access missteps.
“For crying out loud…,” tweeted MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, responding to an Associated Press story about voters being mailed the wrong polling location information.
Actor John Leguziamo tweeted about the lone polling place and Dodge City’s large Latino population, saying “voter suppression in full gear this election.”
The voting situation has garnered headlines in Fortune, The Week, The Atlantic and other national publications.
This story has been updated to include a statement from Ford County officials.
Andrea Tudhope of KCUR contributed reporting to this story.