Politics & Government

Judge troubled by clerk’s ‘LOL’ remark, but won’t order another Dodge City polling site

A southwest Kansas county clerk doesn’t have to open a second polling site in Dodge City, a federal judge ruled on Thursday.

U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Crabtree said forcing Ford County Clerk Debbie Cox to open an additional polling location in Dodge City so close to the Nov. 6 election would not be in the public’s interest.

But Crabtree said he is troubled by Cox’s reaction to an American Civil Liberties Union letter, which Cox forwarded last week to a state official with the comment “LOL.”

Cox moved the city’s only polling place from a central location in town, the Civic Center, to the Expo Center half a mile outside the city limits this fall. The new location is not accessible via sidewalk and there is no regular public transportation there, though the city has said it will provide rides to voters.

The League of United Latin American Citizens and 18-year-old first-time voter Alejandro Rangel-Lopez had sued Cox in an effort to force her to open a second polling location.

The lawsuit will continue after the election. But for now, Crabtree made clear Cox can continue with the single, out-of-town polling place for the current election.

“For the court to insert itself into this process on the eve of the election — by ordering the reopening of the Civic Center either as the only polling location or a second polling location — likely would create more voter confusion than it might cure. The relief plaintiffs seek is not in the public’s interest,” Crabtree wrote.

The ACLU of Kansas, which spearheaded the lawsuit, said it was disappointed in the ruling. But the organization noted that Crabtree’s ruling doesn’t say the Expo Center location is good, only that it would be too difficult to change now.

“Had voters learned of (Cox’s) decision sooner, our case may have prevailed,” ACLU of Kansas director Micah Kubic said in a statement. “She can rest easy -- for now -- that she was able to run out the clock. We’re all left to wonder, however, what might have been accomplished had she merely chosen to work with us and with our clients.”

During a nearly three-hour long hearing earlier Thursday, both sides fought about whether a second polling location could be opened in such a short time.

An official in Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s office raised concerns that opening a second location could open the sites up to double voting.

It would be impossible to compare the polling books of two polling places in real time to protect against double voting, said Bryan Caskey, the state director of elections.

“There’s no real time check” between the polling place and the state’s voter registration system, he said.

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Kobach and Democratic Sen. Laura Kelly are locked in a tight race for Kansas governor. Kobach has prosecuted double-voting cases and built much of his political career on promises of fighting voter fraud.

Kansas law requires each voter to be assigned to a specific polling location, Caskey said. When voters go to the location, their name is checked against a list of voters assigned to that location.

But if a second location was opened containing the same list of registered voters, poll workers will have no way of knowing in real time whether an individual has already voted at the other site.

“I think it would not be advisable” to add another polling location now, Caskey said.

Mark Johnson, an attorney representing LULAC and Rangel-Lopez, raised the possibility of allowing the old polling site, previously at the city’s Civic Center, to be open. Voters who went there would vote provisionally.

Cox said in court that she had made calls to the city government as late as Thursday morning seeking to set up transportation from the Civic Center to the Expo Center. She also promised that signs would be posted at the old site telling voters where to go instead.

During cross-examination, Cox acknowledged that she has never taken public transportation in Dodge City. She also said that the reason she moved the polling place — construction at the Civic Center — did not end up happening before the election as she had anticipated. Multiple people testified Thursday that no construction is taking place at the site.

Johnson noted that while a single polling place serves Dodge City’s 13,000 registered voters, three other polling places serve about 1,300 registered voters in the rest of Ford County.

Last week, Cox sent Caskey an email with a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union asking her to publicize a voter help line. She added the comment “LOL” to the email.

Cox was asked about the “LOL” email on Thursday. She said the letter had asked her to put the ACLU’s help line on the county clerk’s website.

“I take it seriously, however, if I allow them to put something on my website, I would have to allow everyone to put something on my website,” she said.

Although he sided with Cox in agreeing not to force her to open a second location, Crabtree said he was “troubled” by her “LOL” email.

“And while the court must evaluate the fully-developed facts governing this claim on a later day, the court notes, for now, its concerns about Ms. Cox’s ‘LOL’ comment and questions whether it manifests a disregard for the ‘fundamental significance’ that our Constitution places on the right to vote,” Crabtree wrote.

Rangel-Lopez, a senior at Dodge City High School, testified by phone. He said that while the Civic Center location wasn’t ideal, it was more centrally located than the Expo Center site.

He said the city had stepped in with offers of free transportation to make up for the “shortcomings” of the county clerk’s office. And he pointed the lack of a sidewalk leading to the Expo Center.

“It’s just in the middle of nowhere,” Rangel-Lopez said.

The lawsuit, filed last Friday, has been put on a fast track as the hours tick down to the election.

The lawsuit was initially set to be heard in Kansas City, Kan. Cox asked it to be moved to Wichita because of the distance from Dodge City. Crabtree settled on Topeka instead.