TOPEKA — Hundreds of people have signed a petition asking for a polling location on the Fort Hays State University campus, continuing a long-running dispute between university students and the county clerk who administers elections.

On Tuesday, Madison Albers, a student at Fort Hays State and co-chair of the American Democracy Project, along with others involved in the polling place effort, delivered 480 signatures in support of the change to Ellis County Clerk Bobbi Dreiling.

Albers spoke of the benefits of utilizing the college campus during a Kansas Reflector interview.

“There’s tons of parking,” Albers said. “Every building on campus has to be ADA compliant. We have so many students who would love to help out and be a poll worker. We have a resolution from the Student Government Association stating that if a polling location were to open on campus, each one of them would work as a poll worker if chosen, and that’s over 30 students right there.”

“Could you imagine how much of a boost that would be, not just to this polling location, but to all polling locations in Ellis County?” she added.

Albers said the Tuesday meeting with Dreiling was inconclusive, and that Dreiling said she would review the signatures.

“Ultimately, I have yet to hear a solid reason from her as to why this is such an unfeasible act,” Albers said.

Anniston Weber, a lifelong Hays resident and graduate of the university, said the move would bolster civic engagement and allow student voices to be heard. Weber said Dreiling’s reasoning remains unclear.

“All of her answers are just really wishy-washy,” Weber said. “We just can’t get a straight answer from her and she doesn’t seem to want to give one.”

Dreiling did not immediately respond to a Kansas Reflector inquiry.

While putting a polling station on campus has been periodically discussed for decades, a Fort Hays State campaign took on new life in 2023. Ellis County community members asked for American Civil Liberty Union of Kansas assistance with the issue to help craft their proposal and bring attention to the issue.

Last fall, Dreiling closed two Hays polling places and began scouting the area for a potential consolidated polling location. Albers and her fellow campaigner, Hays student Grace McCord, proposed two on-campus locations to Dreiling, which were turned down because of poll station requirements.

When making their case to Dreiling, the students researched voting numbers and found that Fort Hays State students had lower levels of voter engagement compared with other Kansas universities. The average national voting rate for college students is around 66% engagement, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.

At the University of Kansas, which has a voting station on campus, voter engagement is at 71% for the population of about 28,000 students. At Fort Hays State, a campus of little more than 14,000 students, the average voter engagement is 62.4%, according to Albers and McCord. 

An ACLU report said there were 19,526 registered voters in Ellis County in 2022. For the 2018 general election, voter turnout was 59.1%, and it dropped to 51.24% in the 2022 general election, one of the largest drops in county voter turnout statewide.

Dreiling was offered a contract with the Messiah Lutheran Church and accepted before the students came back to her with a third on-campus location, one that fit all of her previous requirements.

In a March 11 Hays Post letter, Dreiling said the church was well-situated.

“The opportunity was presented to me to use Messiah Lutheran Church, which is a perfect location for all four Wards and Precincts because it has a large room for the Election, as well as ample parking,” Dreiling wrote. “I would also like to take this time to remind, not only the students, but everyone in the county that we offer early voting at the Administration Center, which is only .40 miles from campus, starting two weeks prior to any election, or you can request an advance mail ballot.”

Albers argues an on-campus place would boost student voter engagement, allow easier voting access for the entire precinct and provide lower-income and elderly residents with a more accessible way to vote.

Albers, who has been working on the issue since 2022, said the campaign would continue.

“I want a polling location on campus,” Albers said. “That’s all this has ever been about, is a polling location on campus. And I feel like we’ve made that very clear, and I can go have another 10 conversations with Bobbi. But I can’t really keep restating the same facts if there’s no actual answer given that can help me restructure to help make this a more viable option.”