By Roxana Hegeman, The Associated Press
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — After moving Dodge City’s sole polling site outside city limits, county election officials sent newly registered voters an official certificate of registration that listed the wrong place to cast a ballot in the midterm election — the latest election snafu to surface in the iconic Wild West town where Hispanics now make up the majority of the population.
The southwest Kansas city, located 160 miles (257 kilometers) west of Wichita, has only one polling site for its 27,000 residents. For nearly two decades, that site was at the civic center in the mostly white part of town.
But citing road construction, officials recently moved it for the November election to the Expo Center outside of town and more than a mile from the nearest bus stop.
“I didn’t know this could get worse, and it did: ‘Hey, let’s move the site and not tell new registrants where they are supposed to go,’” said Johnny Dunlap, chairman of the Ford County Democratic Party.
Local election officials are now scrambling to notify newly registered voters who might be confused by its official registration notice that listed only their regular polling site — not the temporary site for the November election. At the same time, voting rights activists are marshalling their resources to get Dodge City voters to the new polling place — an effort boosted by an outpouring of money and volunteers after widespread national coverage.
Kansas Director of Elections Bryan Caskey admitted that the notices were “confusing,” and said he told Ford County Clerk Debbie Cox that she needed to “inform the voters.” He added that the county is sending another notice to affected registrants.
Cox did not respond to repeated phone and email messages.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s office said in an emailed statement it has no control over the decisions of most Kansas counties, with the exception of the state’s four largest counties where he appoints the election commissioners.
“That’s why you see such a good distribution of polling places in those four counties,” said Danedri Herbert, spokeswoman for Kobach.
Ford County in rural western Kansas is not one of the state’s largest counties.
Nearly 600 people have volunteered to come to Dodge City to give people rides to their polling place on election day, Dunlap said. The advocacy group Voto Latino is trying to provide Lyft rides to voters who need transportation. The party is also leasing vans for election day voting, canvassing in neighborhoods and advertising to inform voters of available rides.
“We are doing everything we can think of and putting as many hours as we can with as many volunteers as we can just to try to mitigate this thing as much as possible,” Dunlap said.
And after city offices were flooded with angry phone calls from citizens, officials announced this week that they were expanding regular city bus routes to the polling site on election day.
“Dodge City has had a longstanding problem with voting accessibility,” said Ethan Corson, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party. “Even previous to this there was a significant problem with the one polling location they do have being located in the predominantly white area of town next to the country club.”
The Dodge City of yesteryear embodied the romance of the American West with its cattle drives and buffalo hunters, but today this western Kansas town is 60 percent Hispanic after an influx of immigrants drawn to its two meatpacking plants.
A copy of a release dated Tuesday and signed by Ford County Administrator J.D. Gilbert explains, in English and Spanish, that the polling site listed on the official voter registration notice is the regular polling place and the Expo Center is the temporary location for the November election.
Alejandro “Alex” Rangel registered in advance so he would be able to vote in November after he turns 18, and he’s been busy registering others in Dodge City. He is the U.S.-born son of immigrants who moved to town to work at the meatpacking plants.
“It’s my duty as a Latino,” he said. Rangel added the actions by the county have made voting confusing for some people.