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Trial starts in suit alleging at-large Dodge City elections unconstitutionally dilute Latino vote

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Trial starts in suit alleging at-large Dodge City elections unconstitutionally dilute Latino vote

Feb 26, 2024 | 6:54 pm ET
By Tim Carpenter
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Trial starts in suit alleging at-large Dodge City elections unconstitutionally dilute Latino vote
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The U.S. District Court trial challenging Dodge City's method of electing city commissioners began Monday with testimony from plaintiff Alejandro Rangel-Lopez, who asserted the at-large system unconstitutionally diluted the ability of Latino residents to be represented at City Hall. The suit says Latinos, who make up 65% of the city's population, hadn't been able to overcome barriers to elect a "candidate of choice" to the five-member commission in more than 20 years. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

WICHITA — Alejandro Rangel-Lopez said opportunity for the majority Latino population in his hometown of Dodge City to be routinely represented on the city commission justified a federal lawsuit challenging an at-large election system that allegedly violated the U.S. Constitution and federal election law.

Rangel-Lopez, a 23-year-old resident of Dodge City, was the leadoff witness Monday in U.S. District Court for what could be a five-day trial of the lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Kansas, UCLA Voting Rights Project and the Cleary Gottlieb law firm. Defendants are the city of Dodge City and five people who served on the city commission.

The suit was filed to demonstrate the at-large approach to city commission elections allowing all Dodge City residents to vote for all five commission seats, as opposed to a district form of representation, distorted outcomes so no “Latine-preferred candidate” had been elected to the commission since 2000.

While Latinos in Dodge City voted cohesively, plaintiffs’ attorneys said, the city’s at-large system permitted non-Hispanic whites to vote as a bloc and consistently carry white candidates to victory. Recent Census data showed Latino residents made up 65% of the southwest Kansas city’s population and represented 59% of the city’s voting-age population.

“It’s very much two communities in one town,” said Rangel-Lopez, referring to the wealthy white northern section of the city and the working-class Latino south side. “I want folks to have hope that something different is possible. I want to live in Dodge City with dignity.”

Rangel-Lopez, who served a City Hall internship in Dodge City prior to filing of the lawsuit in 2022, said some in the community worked to make it a welcoming place for Latinos but he wasn’t convinced city “policies matched rhetoric.”

 

‘Threadbare allegations’

Attorneys for Dodge City, which unsuccessfully sought to have the lawsuit summarily dismissed, argued the at-large election of city commissioners was allowed by state law and had been relied upon without objection for more than 50 years. The same method of elections also was used in Emporia, Garden City, Hays, Lawrence, Manhattan, Pittsburg and Salina.

The defendants argued U.S. District Court Judge Eric Melgren should have tossed the case because the plaintiffs made no assertion residents of Dodge City had ever made an issue of the at-large form of choosing government representation.

“Plaintiffs do not seek to strike down (state law) or to invalidate the commission-manager form of government in other Kansas cities,” the defendants said in court filings. “Plaintiffs do not allege that Dodge City harbored some invidious form of discrimination when it adopted the commission-manager model on January 13, 1970. Nor do they allege that Dodge City’s citizens have elected not to revisit the issue based on some sort of discriminatory intent.

“Instead, plaintiffs rely on threadbare allegations that Dodge City’s facially neutral form of government dilutes the vote of Latines by reducing the Latine community’s ability to elect its candidate of choice,” the plaintiffs said.

Defense counsel Tony Rupp’s questioning of Rangel-Lopez and plaintiffs’ expert witness Cristina Bejarano of Texas Woman’s University was crafted to undermine the idea at-large elections in Dodge City were unconstitutional and should be forbidden in the future.

In addition, plaintiffs’ attorneys proposed the new district-by-district elections for city commission be conducted in even-numbered years. Plaintiffs indicated the practice of holding Dodge City elections in odd-numbered years was a method of taking advantage of low turnout among Latinos in off-year elections, which served as an advantage of white candidates.

 

‘Stark underrepresentation’

Bejarano, a former University of Kansas faculty member with an academic specialty in race, ethnicity and gender politics, walked through a series of charts depicting the underrepresentation of Latinos in Dodge City. She said disenfranchisement of Latinos, many of whom moved to Kansas to work in the meatpacking industry, could be illustrated in terms of educational attainment, housing, health, poverty as well as at City Hall.

“They are underrepresented when we think about their share of the population,” she testified.

The at-large process required commission candidates to conduct citywide campaigns, which were far more expensive than a district campaign for a seat covering one-fifth of the city’s population. That was a clear disadvantage to less-wealthy candidates, the plaintiffs said. The plaintiffs said it should be possible to draw a commission district map that provided the city’s Latino population with the ability to elect “candidates of choice” in two of five districts.

The plaintiffs said no Latino candidate of choice had been elected to the city commission in Dodge City in more than two decades. The defense suggested Joseph Nuci, who served on the commission, identified a Latino. However, Bejarano said there was a dispute about accuracy of Nuci’s claim. Even if Nuci was a candidate of choice among Latino voters, she said, that wouldn’t change the bottom-line conclusion about dynamics of at-large voting in Dodge City.

“It would not alter the analysis,” she said. “There is still stark underrepresentation.”

In 2021, a candidate-of-choice, Latino Blanca Soto, was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Dodge City Commission. She subsequently lost a campaign to win the seat outright.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division submitted to the U.S. District Court in Wichita a statement outlining why Rangel-Lopez and co-plaintiff Miguel Coca had the private right to file suit against Dodge City challenging at-large elections.

Melgren denied defendants’ motion to dismiss the suit alleging violation the equal protection clause of the constitution’s 14th Amendment and Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. That section of the voting law imposed a nationwide ban on cities use of practices resulting in “denial or abridgment of the right of a U.S. citizen to vote on account of race or color.”

The Ford County election clerk fell under an election spotlight in 2018 after deciding the city’s only polling station would be moved to a facility outside the city limits more than 1 mile from the nearest bus stop. It was widely viewed as an attempt to deter Latino turnout in the election.

For nearly 20 years, the only place to cast a vote in-person in Dodge City had been a civic center near a country club in the wealthy, white part of the city. The county clerk has since added a second polling location. Prior to 2000, the city had seven polling sites.