Judge denies ACLU request to move Dodge City polling site

Posted: Updated:
TOPEKA, Kan. (KAKE) -

UPDATE: A federal judge has DENIED the request to move voting in Dodge City back to the Civic Center. It will REMAIN at the Expo Center, a mile outside of town. The ACLU has said it would not appeal a ruling like this.

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6 pm Thursday

Just days before the mid-term elections a federal judge is trying to decide where Dodge City voters will cast their ballots.  Attorneys are demanding Ford County open a second polling site for the more than 13,000 registered voters in Dodge City.  Ford County Election Clerk  Debbie Cox  is at the center of this lawsuit filed after she moved the only polling location for Dodge City outside the city limits, a mile from the nearest city bus stop.

"That's really what this case is about, is whether or not these burdens that have been established in Dodge City make it too hard for people to vote," said Micah Kubic with the ACLU of Kansas.

An 18-year-old high school student in Dodge City, Alejandro Rangel-Lopez, and other voters say yes.  Rangel-Lopez testified via phone from Dodge City High School, where he's still a student.  He described long waits at the polls, difficulties of friends and family finding rides and babysitters, or just getting the time off  work to vote.

He and the others in the suit want more voting locations in Dodge City, but for now are asking the judge to bring back the Civic Center site that the county has used for the last 20 years.

"The Civic Center is not the most convenient," he told Judge Daniel Crabtree.  "But it is a lot more centrally located."

He also described community wide confusion over locations after the late announcement of the temporary change to the Expo Center followed by nearly 300 voter registration cards mailed out with the old polling site on them.

"Anytime you send a notice to voters, some get it, some don't.  Some read it, some don't.  A lot of them don't understand it.  But when you follow up with more notices, more letters more press release, it just creates more confusion," said Mark Johnson, one of the ACLU lawyers.  "Well, I think one of the consequences of what's happened in Dodge City this fall is that a lot of people don't know where they're allowed to vote.  And so they're not going to go."

In court, Cox admitted to voter confusion saying, "Everyone has received a lot of calls.  There's misinformation out." 

But she says any kind of return to the Civic Center is not possible at this late date, just four days before the election.

"I think it is never too late to protect people's fundamental right to vote," said Kubic.

Cox said it is too late. 

"I do not believe it could be practically done," she said. 

The state's Director of Elections backed her up, pointing to computer programming and ballot printing requirements that must be met, some of them this weekend.

"It would be extraordinarily difficult," said Bryan Caskey.  "It would be even more so without violating several state laws.

He added, state law prevents an election clerk from running two sites simultaneously where any voter can show up at either site, which is one suggested solution.

"Kansas law requires that every voter be assigned to a specific polling location," Caskey said.  "I understand the relief being sought, why don't we just open both places?  There's a state law that prohibits that."

He says he is worried about confusion.  But the best remedy is to put up signs at the Civic Center re-directing anyone who shows up there to the Expo Center.

"Our recommendation any time a voting place changes, especially between the primary and the general, is that you put signage up  at the old location.  Voters are creatures of habit, they go to the same polling place," he said.  "You need to tell them... plaster signs... 'Hey, this is closed.  This is where you go to the new one.'"

"There's no question that there's effort involved," said Kubic.  "I happen to think, the ACLU happens to think and the Constitution happens to think that the effort should not be on the voters."

Despite having the longest testimony in this hearing, Debbie Cox once again declined to answer our questions.  Her attorneys also chose not to comment.  
Judge Crabtree has promised to make a ruling as quickly as possible in the case.

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