DODGE CITY — Volunteers from across the country descended on Dodge City to help voters get to the polls after the voting site was relocated outside town in a move that received national attention.
A couple of weeks ago, Matias Rico, of San Diego, was watching TV and saw a blurb about Dodge City’s voting location.
“I got to get there and help get the vote out,” he recalled thinking.
Rico recruited his cousin Rene Lopez, and the two flew to Denver and drove to Dodge City on Monday.
Ford County clerk Deborah Cox came under fire after moving Dodge City’s only polling place to the Expo Center about a month before the midterm election. The Civic Center, the original polling site inside the city limits, was slated to undergo construction. The ACLU filed a lawsuit alleging the city’s Hispanic population might be disenfranchised by the change. More than half of Dodge City’s population is Hispanic.
Throughout Tuesday, volunteers mobilized across Dodge City to spread the word about voting at the correct location and assist anyone who needed a ride to the polls. Volunteers had flown or driven in from Denver, Manhattan, Kansas City, Mo., and New York City. Three women from Lawrence rented a chartered bus to help with transportation needs.
“I am deeply inspired, because this is what democracy looks like,” said Wendy Damman, the Kansas Democratic Party’s regional field director for the 1st Congressional District.
When the Expo Center opened at 7 a.m., about 40 people were waiting in line to cast their ballots.
After voting, Juliana Guerra said, the process was quick and simple, but the drive out to the Expo Center was pretty far.
“I live on the other side of town,” Guerra said.
Tim Reardon, however, said he thought the location was accessible and the space was more open than the Civic Center.
Richard McTague rode a shuttle provided by the city. He uses the bus system regularly and said he was glad the service was available to take him to the polling site.
Eighteen-year-old Alejandro Rangel-Lopez, who is a plaintiff in the ACLU case, took a Lyft to the Expo Center to vote for the first time.
“It was exciting,” he said.
While in the polling location, he said he got a couple looks.
“That was expected,” he said, attributing it to his involvement in the lawsuit. “That’s been a very important part of my life this past month because I’m standing up for what I believe in and I’m standing up for the rights that people in Dodge City deserve which is to vote and to exercise their rights.”
Rangel-Lopez said he would like to see at least one more polling location in future elections, but five would be even better, to put Dodge City on par with similarly sized towns like Garden City.
Melissa Stiehler, an elections observer with the ACLU, said she was assessing the length of lines and number of poll workers and answering any questions voters might have. She said about 11 a.m. that the stream of voters had been “pretty steady” and that the voters were predominantly white.
The average wait time was 16 minutes, said Alex Martinez, another ACLU observer.
According to Martinez, at least 10 people had shown up at the Civic Center because they weren’t aware of the location change.
Later Tuesday afternoon, Stiehler said several people had to fill out provisional ballots because they had moved and their address hadn’t been updated. Many people said they thought it had been updated through the DMV, but for some reason the information hadn’t gone through. She said the issue was being reported to the ACLU in different parts of the state, not only Ford County.
Unlike at several other Kansas polling sites, members of the media weren’t allowed to take photos or video inside the Expo Center.
“This is the election and that’s Kansas state law,” said Bradley Schlozman, the attorney representing Cox in the lawsuit involving the ACLU.
Max Kautsch, an attorney for The Topeka Capital-Journal and the Kansas Press Association, said, “That’s insane.”
Schlozman later pointed to an Oct. 22 opinion by Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt. State statue reads, “the election board of each polling place ‘shall have control of its voting place and election procedure under the sole supervision of the secretary of state, county election officer, deputy county election officers and the supervising judge.’ “
Kautsch said that while the government has an interest in protecting voting places, it has to be balanced with rights laid out in the First Amendment. Photographs have been taken in past elections at Dodge City’s voting location.
“I don’t care what’s been done,” Schlozman said.
Cox said she felt letting the media in would be “too disruptive.”
She expected in-person voting turnout Tuesday to reach 4,000 people.
“I’m very happy with the turnout,” she said. “We’ve had lines all morning long, and we still have lines.”
In addition, 2,638 Dodge City residents voted in person in advance of Election Day, and more than 1,000 residents requested mail-in ballots.
Cox said she had received positive comments Tuesday about the location.
“I don’t feel like anyone’s been disenfranchised at all,” she said.