Elections

In Dodge City, voter complaints are few at the one polling place outside town

With its polls being monitored by the Justice Department and the ACLU, Dodge City pulled out all the stops to try to ensure all its residents, especially Latino residents, had a chance to make their votes count at the one out-of-town polling place that Ford County provided.

This historic cattle town has been one focus in the national fight over voting rights this election, after the county moved the only polling place from the Civic Center downtown to an arena built for rodeo and farm equipment shows outside the city limits.

Election Day drew voting-rights advocates from as far away as San Diego for get-out-the-vote efforts. The city used its transit system and school buses to pick up voters at the Civic Center and at their homes and take them to the arena.

But in the end, it turned out there were more buses than people who needed them. And many voters who did trek to the polling place said it really wasn’t that big of a deal to them.

“I think the location is fine,” said Tyson Schroeder, a history teacher at the high school. “This town isn’t as big as the national media wants to make it. We drive 2 1/2 hours for a day trip to Wichita.”

Schroeder has lived in Dodge City since 2006 and said “I’ve always found it odd there’s only one site.” But he said he’s never had to wait more than 15 minutes and by being there when the doors open at 7 a.m., he’s always gotten to school on time.

Vaughn Nash, who runs a western store, said he thinks the arena south of town is a good place to vote because it’s well-known to everybody.

“Everybody comes here, Hispanic, white, black,” he said. “It’s just a meeting place for everybody. It’s easier (to vote) here than at the Civic Center, more parking, easier access.”

Latino turnout was abysmal in the morning hours, maybe one out of 10 voters in a minority-majority city where six out of 10 residents are Hispanic.

But minority turnout picked up noticeably in the afternoon and evening, after shift change at the meat-packing plants that are the heart of Dodge City industry.

Mohamed Yaaqoub and Ezedeen Younes came to America from the Sudan and work at the Cargill plant

They came to the regular voting place at the Civic Center, where drivers were on hand to give them a ride to the Western State Bank Expo arena.

Yaaqoub and Younes wound up catching a ride in the City’s Convention and Visitors Bureau van, driven by Colleen Hastings, who works in the city-run bureau.

As they rode to the polls, Yaaqoub talked about how he came to the United States as a refugee after the Janjaweed, a roving pro-government militia, burned the village where he grew up and stole or destroyed almost all of his family’s livestock and possessions.

“If you try to say ‘no,’ they can kill you,” he said.

His village destroyed, he moved to the capital of Khartoum and then on to Lebanon, before immigrating to the United States. He worked for Johnson Controls in Wichita for several years before moving to Dodge City for a packing job last year.

He became a U.S. citizen in July and registered to vote. “I just feel excited,” he said. “This is my first time to vote.”

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Mohamed Yaaqoub, left, and his friend and meat-packing-plant co-worker, Ezedeen Younes, ride to the polls in a Dodge City Convention and Visitors Bureau van. Both voted, but had to vote provisional ballots because of ID issues. Dion Lefler The Wichita Eagle

But at the polls, both he and Younes had to vote provisional ballots. Yaaquoub didn’t know he had to bring his passport for ID, and Younes had changed his address since he registered.

Yaaqoub said he had voted only once before in his home country, and this was more complicated.

“They don’t need IDs,” he said. “Over there, they give you a paper. You just sign it and vote.”

Matias Rico of San Diego learned of the controversy about the polling place from watching the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC. He immediately wanted to help out the Hispanic community.

“I told my wife, I gotta go to Dodge,” he said.

So he recruited his cousin, Rene Lopez, and off they went. They flew into Denver, rented a car and drove the rest of the way.

They stayed several days and helped people cast advance ballots.

“Dodge City became part of my consciousness because they’re trying to suppress the vote,” he said “It appears to be working, unfortunately.”

On Tuesday, Rico stationed himself at the Civic Center to help with rides to the polls.

Lopez took turns with volunteers from Lawrence and Manhattan, waving a “Honk if you voted” sign on Wyatt Earp Boulevard in front of Dodge City’s iconic western-themed Front Street. The honking was almost constant.

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Rene Lopez of San Diego and Malley Sisson of Manhattan wave a sign to encourage voters in Dodge City. Dion Lefler The Wichita Eagle

Both the cousins have been active in Latino politics since college when they were members of MecHa, a Mexican-American student organization with a chapter at San Diego State.

“In 1969, Matias came to my house and said ‘We’re going to San Francisco . . . We’re going to protest the war,” Lopez said. “A week ago, he said ‘Hey Rene, let’s go to Kansas to protest the voter suppression. Same thing.”

At the center of the hurricane stood the woman who moved the polling place, Ford County Clerk Debbie Cox, directing staff and helping voters who had problems with their ballots.

She said the only reason she moved the polling place from its usual location at the downtown Civic Center was that there was supposed to be construction underway there and she didn’t want to put voters at physical risk.

“I know that I’m catching flak because they have not started construction, but I cannot control construction,” she said.

The past few weeks have been “very stressful, very hectic, it’s been a strain on a lot of my office help and a lot of county help because every office has been getting calls.”

She said it’s been hard to take calls and watch TV shows of people complaining that she was suppressing the vote.

“I have been sickened about how they have portrayed our Hispanic community, because we have good people in this community,” she said. That portrayal “was almost like they don’t know how to get anywhere, the majority of them don’t drive, they don’t know where this place is. I can guarantee you the majority of people in Ford County, of all races, know where this building facility is.”

She said she thought turnout would end up exceeding previous comparable elections, although numbers wouldn’t be available until later Tuesday.

The polling site serves 13,000 registered voters spread over nine city precincts and 11 rural townships. About 2,000 are probably inactive, several thousand usually vote by mail or in advance at the election office, and the average general election draws about 3,000 election-day voters, Cox said.

Cox was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union. The constitutional-rights group sought to force her to open a second polling site at the Civic Center, but a judge denied the request.

The ACLU alleged that the single location and distance to the Western State Bank Expo arena would suppress turnout among Hispanic residents, who make up 60 percent of the community but tend to be poorer and have less access to transportation.

On Tuesday, they had an observer at the polling place, Melissa Stiehler of Kansas City.

“The bottom line is we want polling places that are accessible to everyone in the community,” she said.

She said the lines seemed to move fairly quickly after a burst of voters in the early morning, but she did notice a trend late in the day of minority voters being sent to cast provisional ballots. Most seemed to be issues with IDs, she said. In many cases, people had moved and their current drivers’ licenses didn’t match their current addresses.

The federal government also sent a team of observers from the Justice Department in Washington. They wouldn’t comment — even to say how many of them there were — but they did speak with minority voters using provisional ballots.

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