This undated photo provided by the Ford County Government Center in Dodge City, Kan., shows County Clerk Debbie Cox. Cox, who moved the only polling site in the historic Wild West town of Dodge City to a facility outside the city limits more than a mile from the nearest bus stop says it is not possible to add a second polling site for the upcoming election. On Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018, U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree will hear arguments on a suit from the American Civil Liberties Union whether to force Cox to open another polling site in town for the midterm election. (Ford County Government Center via AP)

Dodge City scrambles to bus voters to sole polling place

November 01, 2018 - 3:12 pm

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The Kansas county clerk who moved the only polling site for the historic Wild West town of Dodge City sought to reassure a federal judge that voters can take buses to get there and that people who show up in the wrong place will get help.

But Ford County Clerk Deborah Cox acknowledged during a federal court hearing Thursday that she's still uncertain about arrangements for moving people to the new facility outside the city limits if they show up at the old site in town instead.

The only polling site for the city's now 13,000 registered voters for two decades was a civic center in a mostly white part of town. Cox decided to move the site to a new county Expo Center after learning that a construction project was planned for late October at the civic center — though work had not started as of Thursday.

The American Civil Liberties Union asked U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree to order Cox to open both the old and new polling sites for Tuesday for Election Day. The ACLU argues that moving the only polling site makes it more difficult for the city's mostly Hispanic population to vote.

The hearing ended with Crabtree questioning Cox and her attorneys about arrangements for voters who show up at the old polling site. They said the city has offered to take voters from their homes and jobs to the new polling place, and Cox said she reached out to the city again Thursday morning about moving voters between the old and new polling sites.

"They do have a limited number of buses, however," she said.

Crabtree did not issue a ruling from the bench but said he would have a decision soon because, "I know what day Election Day is."

The southwest Kansas city, located 160 miles (257 kilometers) west of Wichita, once was a destination for cattle drives where cowboys and gunslingers tangled. In recent decades, meatpacking plants have drawn to the town thousands of Hispanics, who now make up a majority of the 27,000 population.

Cox is a Republican who has served as the elected county clerk since 2016. She sent a notice to voters on Sept. 28 that she was moving the location for the upcoming election outside the city limits to the new Expo Center, which she acknowledged in the mailing was inconvenient. It is more than a mile from the nearest bus stop.

The ACLU sued on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens and Alejandro Rangel-Lopez, the 18-year-old son of Mexican immigrants who will be voting for the first time in November.

Rangel-Lopez testified by phone that his father, who became a U.S. citizen in 2004, has had to wait an hour and sometimes two hours to vote at the single polling place.

As for the new polling site, he said, "It's just in the middle of nowhere."

Johnny Dunlap, the Ford County Democratic Party chairman, said that in his opinion, the city's bus system "does not have the capacity" to move potentially several thousand voters.

Cox testified that she wasn't notified formally of plans for a late-October start for a construction project at the civic center until the end of August. She said state law required her to notify voters by early October.

She said she needed a site as large as the civic center, and the only other potential venue was an arena near a casino, even further outside town.

Cox and Bryan Caskey, the state elections director in the Kansas secretary of state's office, questioned whether Ford County would have enough time to find and program equipment, find and train election workers and make other arrangements for a second polling site. Caskey noted Kansas law requires election officials to assign each voter to only one polling place on Election Day, a further complication.

"I don't like to use the word impossible because I don't work in impossibilities. It would be extraordinarily difficult," Caskey told reporters after the hearing. "It would be even more so without violating several state laws."

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