Guest Commentary

ACLU’s lawsuit over Dodge City polling places was never about buses

Dodge City has only one polling place for its 13,000 residents.
Dodge City has only one polling place for its 13,000 residents. File illustration

In the closing weeks of the general election, media coverage of our fight on behalf of Dodge City, Kan., voters mushroomed — and for good reason. Dodge City has subsisted on one polling place for its 13,000 residents, while 1,300 Ford County residents outside of town share three poll sites.

Rightfully concerned and righteously indignant, people flooded us with offers to charter buses for voters and even offered to fly in from elsewhere to ferry people to the polls. We welcomed those warm and thoughtful sentiments, especially in this current vitriolic political climate.

But the focus on the apparent immediate need for buses substantially misses the larger, and frankly awful reality in Ford County: County Clerk Debbie Cox has made it clear she doesn’t want some folks voting, and worse, some of her targets have gotten the message.

There’s a dangerous narrative brewing that what happened in Dodge City has been overblown — that somehow, because buses weren’t full, voter suppression doesn’t exist there. We categorically reject that notion.

Kansas voter turnout rose in last week’s election. Statewide turnout was roughly 57 percent, compared to 50.8 percent in 2014. In Dodge City, the numbers held generally flat, mirroring 2014. In Ford County, overall turnout was 44.99 percent, up slightly from 41.7 percent in 2014 — not a ton of change in the aggregate, but drill down a bit and a disturbing gulf widens.

The number of Ford County ballots cast in advance doubled — more than 55 percent versus just 27 percent of ballots cast in advance in 2014.

By contrast, virtually all of the 17 Dodge City complaints to the Election Protection Hotline last Monday and Tuesday involved Hispanic voters being given provisional ballots.

This is the natural outgrowth of the culture Secretary of State Kris Kobach has specifically created, and this is precisely what we’re addressing in our broader lawsuit against Cox’s office.

When Cox compounded the blunder of maintaining one polling site over the objections of constituents with the blunder of sending voters to the wrong address for the city’s lone polling site, we filed a temporary restraining order trying to clean up her mess.

The short-term concern was getting people to the polls, but that was never the long game. Stopping the injection of needless complexity and suspense into the voting process was.

In place of her voting suppression campaign, we’d like to institute reforms such as Election Day registration and permanent advance voting. Not only do these reforms energize voting, but they also offer the byproduct of security without the typical unlawful and discriminatory voter suppression. States utilizing these measures enjoy higher levels of citizen participation and healthier civic ecosystems, with voters developing the regular discipline of voting.

Developing a new routine and voting culture is important when our civic memory seems to last only a few news cycles. And what a news cycle we’ve just experienced.

The ACLU of Kansas made multiple appearances on “The Rachel Maddow Show.” We remained in almost daily contact with The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, USA Today, National Public Radio and The Los Angeles Times.

That gale of coverage spread worldwide, reaching Chile and France. People offered to come to Kansas from as far away as San Diego to drive people to the polls.

Despite the fact that the supply of rides outpaced demand, the central issue was always about systemic change. We understood the problems would remain after national media had retreated and after the local voter suppression machine resumed its advance.

Dodge City is 56 percent Hispanic. When that majority barely turns out to vote, the problem isn’t transportation. It’s voters having nowhere to go in the current system.

Micah Kubic is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.