By Mary Clarkin, The Hutchinson News
Shadowed by a lawsuit and mounting legal fees over voting access for its residents, Ford County is expected to finalize and announce two new polling locations in Dodge City that will be used for the August primary and November general elections this year.
After the sites are contracted within the next month, the county will mail notices to voters informing them of their new polling place. It isn’t clear if a pending lawsuit against Ford County Clerk Deborah Cox will fold as a result.
The Western State Bank Expo Center is not one of the new sites. It sits outside city limits and was the only polling site for Dodge City voters last November. That sparked a lawsuit by plaintiffs League of United Latin American Citizens, Kansas, and Alejandro Rangel-Lopez. Their legal counsel is provided by the ACLU of Kansas.
Cox wants the litigation to end over voting locations. Lauren Bonds, interim executive director at the ACLU of Kansas, said in a statement Friday that “Cox could make this lawsuit disappear today by promising to open more polling sites. To date, she’s only indicated an intent to do so,” Bonds said, referring to a statement in a previous court filing.
Cox’s attorney, Bradley Schlozman, with the Hinkle Law Firm in Wichita, has criticized the ACLU in court filings for considering Cox’s stated plans to not reschedule the Expo Center as a voting site as vague. “Plaintiffs seem to think that nothing short of a blood oath will suffice,” Schlozman wrote.
Ford County has spent enough on legal fees defending the lawsuit to pay for between six and a dozen voting locations, depending on equipment costs.
Search for sites
One site is expected to be in a city-owned facility. Dodge City Assistant City Manager/Legislative Affairs Ernestor De La Rosa said there are reservations for a location for 2019 and 2020 voting. He declined to identify the site until the arrangement had been finalized by Cox.
De La Rosa said all city facilities comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the city completed a voting place accessibility checklist. He said a permit contract does not require approval by Dodge City’s City Commission. De La Rosa said the city will again provide transit service for voters. Also, he said, “We’re committing bilingual (city) staff to work with the election.”
The News contacted Dodge City USD 443 to ask if one of its properties is a new polling location. The answer was no. The district office had not been contacted by the county regarding a new site.
Ford County’s longtime single voting site for Dodge City voters, the Civic Center, will not be used as a polling location in 2019, either. A planned construction project led Cox to relocate voting in 2018.
The Ford County Clerk’s office referred press questions to County Administrator J.D. Gilbert. He did not reveal the new locations but indicated those conversations were taking place.
Two sites would double the number of Dodge City voting sites since the 1990s, but that doesn’t meet the desired target of the ACLU of Kansas. “We are requesting four polls,” Bonds said.
Bonds, a lifelong Kansan who grew up in Hutchinson, said her clients are looking for action, not promises. She said the ACLU of Kansas filed the lawsuit on behalf of Ford County residents “who’d tried for more than a year to get Cox to address their concerns. After little progress, those constituents contacted us.”
“We do not seek site contracts, just actual plans rather than ephemeral intentions,” Bonds added.
Cox has stated “in no uncertain terms” that she will operate multiple polling sites for Dodge City voters for all future elections and has no plans to use the Expo Center again, Schlozman wrote in a Jan. 2 filing.
Requiring discovery - which could entail supplying documents and emails and taking depositions regarding the polling site decision for the November election- would be “a colossal waste of the Court’s time and resources” and “a pointless drain on Ford County taxpayers’ funds,” Schlozman wrote in a court document.
Cost of sites
Ford County paid the Hinkle Law Firm more than $71,000 for October-November. Bonds pointed out that opening additional polling places would cost less.
“Our discussions with Kansas County Clerks and elections officers indicate Cox could have opened a dozen polling places for what she’s spent in legal fees - and Ford County taxpayers haven’t received December’s and January’s bills yet,” Bonds wrote in an email. “Ford County government should just open more polling places already, and stop trying to shift the blame for its lack of constituent responsiveness.”
A check with some counties showed the cost of opening a new polling site - and using new equipment instead of shifting machines from an already operating location - could vary widely. The biggest price item is voting equipment and counties use different systems.
Cost estimates for opening a polling place include:
- $10,775: In Reno County, Deputy Election Officer Jenna Fager estimated this overall cost for opening an entirely new polling location, with a three-member election board serving an area with 1,000 registered voters. She based that on estimates of $10,300 for new equipment, $375 for the election board, $50 for building rental, and $50 for machine delivery and setup. Fager used slightly high numbers to include election board mileage costs and the yearly costs for maintenance and licensing fees.
- $21,728: This estimate from Saline County uses different voting equipment than Reno County. Saline County Clerk and Election Officer Jamie Allen estimated this as cost of a new site serving 1,000 registered voters. Building rental would be $50, and the building setup and machine delivery would cost $35 each, Allen calculated. The election board would cost $475, and the equipment cost would be $21,183.
- $5,000: In Harvey County, County Clerk and Election Officer Rick Piepho came up with a lower estimate, but he noted that costs could be expected to increase in succeeding years. Piepho estimated about $4,200 for the new equipment, plus about $500 per year for maintenance; $450 for a three-member election board; $50 or more for facility rental with a commercial building location potentially costing considerably more; and $450 for delivery and setup costs. Piepho said those figures don’t include the additional costs and time involved to find suitable ADA-compliant facilities. They also don’t include the expense of mailed notices to voters and publication costs.
Sedgwick County Chief Deputy Election Officer Sandra Gritz provided figures that showed how the costs could be considerably lower if equipment didn’t have to be purchased.
That county added 10 voting sites for the 2018 election cycle. It budgeted $26,180 for the initial cost of the change. That figure covered polling place rental, supplies, and election board workers for both the primary and general elections. The new equipment was purchased in 2017. Gritz noted that the $26,180 sum did not include postage costs for notifying voters.
The costs of renting a polling location can vary, Gritz pointed out, citing the example of installing temporary measures to make it ADA-compliant.
The trend in Reno County is found in other counties: Consolidate rather than add voting locations. Most voters in Hutchinson cast ballots at the Kansas State Fairgrounds.
“When I started here in 2011, we were still using a garage at a farm,” said Harvey County’s Piepho. The ACLU makes it sound as if putting in a certain number of polling places is the solution, but it’s not that simple, Piepho said.
More voting sites can result in more errors, in his experience. Piepho asked: is it cost-effective if only 100 voters come in all day to vote if it costs $1,000 to operate a site?
There are also wide swings in voter turnout, depending if it is a presidential election year or an off-year election. “Yes, maybe I need 30 poll sites in presidential election years, but when turnout is only 25 percent (in non-presidential elections), do I need 30? We were in odd years switching it up (reducing locations) and it got confusing,” Piepho said, with voters unsure about their voting location.
Piepho decided to embrace consistency. Harvey County maintains the same election sites from year to year so voters know where to vote. Even the start of early voting - two weeks ahead - is the same from election to election in Harvey County.
A voting site must be ADA-compliant and accessible to the public during voting hours, typically 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The site should have communications capabilities and have parking. Schools have space but they have increasingly tightened security in their buildings. Some churches have big gymnasiums, but using an empty storefront at a mall isn’t an ideal option because it may be available for only one election, Piepho noted.
Bonds said if Ford County announces two voting locations for the 2019 elections, ACLU of Kansas would discuss the next steps in the litigation with their clients.
The plaintiffs suing the Ford County Clerk are not seeking a financial settlement.