By Jonathan Shorma, The Wichita Eagle
TOPEKA - A 45-minute wait to vote in a hotly contested election is insignificant, contends the county clerk who moved Dodge City’s single poll out of town.
The election is over, but a federal lawsuit over voter access to the polls in Dodge City continues.
Ford County Clerk Debbie Cox successfully blocked an attempt by the American Civil Liberties Union to force her to open a second polling location just days before the election. Now, she wants the lawsuit thrown out. The ACLU vows to press ahead.
“The reality is that, in the most recent November 6 election, there were no lines at all for most of the day and, even at the peak voting period of approximately 5:30 PM, the line was only about forty-five minutes long,” court documents filed on Cox’s behalf say. “In a hotly contested election, that is insignificant.”
Cox came under national scrutiny in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 election after she decided to move Dodge City’s sole Election Day polling location to a building a half-mile outside the city limits that isn’t accessible via sidewalks. Cox cited construction that was expected at the previous site but didn’t end up happening.
The ACLU sued on behalf of a Latin American civil rights organization and a Dodge City high school student. The ACLU challenged not only the movement of the polling location, but also that the city — with more than 13,000 registered voters — has just one polling location. Cox has publicly said she will open a second site by 2020.
Now that the election has passed, Cox is making several arguments for why the lawsuit should be dismissed. Her attorney, Bradley Schlozman, filed court documents in recent days listing her arguments, including that wait times at Dodge City’s polling site were not a problem.
The court documents argue that long lines amount to little more than incidental inconveniences that are common when turnout is high and that they raise no constitutional concerns. A “brief line of less than an hour” has no legal significance, the documents contend.
The filings on behalf of Cox also call the lawsuit “as patronizing as it is unmeritorious.”
Suggestions that federal law may have been violated because the single polling place had a disparate impact on Hispanic voters because of their lower incomes compared to white voters “is both offensive to the Hispanic community” and not supported by past court decisions, the documents say.
Cox, who is white, is being sued by the League of United Latin American Citizens and Alejandro Rangel-Lopez, an 18-year-old high school student who is Hispanic. The ACLU of Kansas, along with Kansas City-area attorney Mark Johnson, is representing both.
The ACLU of Kansas plans to file a formal response to Cox’s motion to dismiss, and said it will wait until then to fully address Cox’s contention that a 45-minute wait is insignificant and her public promises to open a second polling site.
“We would like to note, however, that we find it incredibly tone deaf for a white elected official to tell her Hispanic constituents that their pleas for justice are patronizing,” ACLU of Kansas legal director Lauren Bonds said in a statement.
Earlier court filings from the ACLU included declarations from four Hispanic voters in Dodge City, Bonds said.
“Ms. Cox’s failure to muster a single Hispanic or working class voter to co-sign her polling location selection is striking. While she may want to pretend that there is no brown or white part of Dodge City, or that economic status doesn’t make voting prohibitive when coupled with an illogically placed polling site, such realities do exist,” Bonds said.
National attention on Dodge City began to build in the weeks before the election. The ACLU sent several letters to Cox that asked her to reconsider the out-of-town polling location and open a second site.
One letter asked her to publicize a voter help line. Cox forwarded the letter to an official in the Kansas secretary of state’s office with the comment “LOL.”
In a written order just days before the election, Judge Daniel Crabtree declined to order Cox to open a second site, but also noted concerns about the LOL comment and whether it “manifests a disregard for the ‘fundamental significance’ that our Constitution places on the right to vote.”
Election Day appeared to move relatively smoothly in Ford County, with buses made available to shuttle voters who went to the wrong polling location.
About 47 percent of registered voters in Ford County cast ballots in the November election. That’s an improvement from the last gubernatorial election in 2014, when about 42 percent of registered voters cast ballots.