ACLU sues Kansas town over Latino voting representation

A federal lawsuit contends the election system used in Dodge City, Kansas, prevents the city’s large Latino population from electing representatives to the city commission.

The lawsuit filed Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups argues the current method allowing citywide votes for all five commissioners is unconstitutional and violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Instead, the southwest Kansas city should be divided into five voting districts, which would give Latino residents an increased chance of electing their preferred candidates in at least two of the proposed districts, according to the lawsuit.

Nickolaus Hernandez, city manager in Dodge City, said in a statement that the lawsuit does not give a complete picture of the city’s method of at-large commission elections and municipal activities, “as it relates to several other cities of the same size and structure across Kansas.”

“We are eager and always open to having fruitful conversations with our community members that drive meaningful change for the good of our entire city,” Hernandez said. “We intend to specifically extend that invitation to the groups who filed this complaint. We welcome the dialogue and look forward to the opportunity to help advance our great city, and build upon our rich, unique and diverse population.”

The petition comes four years after the ACLU sued Ford County Clerk Debbie Cox for moving Dodge City’s only polling site outside of the city, which the organization contended made it more difficult for Latino residents who often rely on public transportation to vote. The lawsuit was dismissed after Cox agreed to maintain two polling sites for future elections.

The current lawsuit claims that no Latino candidate has been elected to the commission since at least 2000 and a Latina woman who was appointed in 2021 did not win a full term later that year.

At least three other Latino candidates who ran for the commission were overwhelmingly supported by Latino residents but did not win seats on the commission, according to the lawsuit.

However, current commissioner Joseph Nuci Jr. said in a statement late Friday afternoon that he is Latino and has twice been elected to the commission.

“The claim and reports that frame Dodge City as not having elected representation of a Latino on the commission are categorically false, they misrepresent our commission, and are merely an attempt to divide our great city,” Nuci said.

The city of 27,000 people about 160 miles (257 kilometers) west of Wichita has been transformed in recent decades by immigrants drawn to work at meatpacking plants in the region.

Latinos now make up nearly 65% of the city’s population and about 46% of the voting age population, according to the 2020 Census.

The lawsuit says a continuing lack of voting sites in mostly Latino areas, combined with a history of voting-related discrimination and severe social and economic disparities between the white and Latino populations works to prevent more Latino representation on the commission.

The “dilutive effect” of the current system of allowing all residents to vote in all commission races allows non-Latino Dodge City residents to consistently vote together to defeat Latino voters’ preferred candidates, the lawsuit contends.

“This system is reflective of a broader problem in Kansas, where those in power systematically seek to diminish minority voters and exclude them from the governing process,” ACLU of Kansas legal director Sharon Brett said in a statement.

“The Latine population in Dodge City deserves equal voice in shaping their local government, and federal law demands it,” Brett said, using a gender-neutral term for Latino and Latina voters.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two Latino residents of Dodge City by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, the national ACLU, the UCLA Voting Rights Project and New York City-based law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen and Hamilton.

The lawsuit asks the court to prevent Dodge City from using its current citywide voting system and instead requiring it implement district-based elections that do not dilute or minimize the voting strength of the Latino population.

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