Three weeks before the November 2018 election, Ford County Clerk Debbie Cox vented frustration with her predecessor over the "big mess" erupting in their southwest Kansas community.
As the county’s chief election officer, Cox unilaterally decided to move the town’s only polling site in anticipation of a construction project she feared could interfere with Election Day traffic. The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas expressed concerns that the new location, located outside city limits and lacking public transportation, would disenfranchise a predominantly Latino community.
The single polling location served 13,000 registered voters.
"That is why ACLU has their panties in a bunch," Cox wrote in an email exchange with retired county clerk Sharon Seibel.
Backlash over Cox’s decision, churning with racial themes, attracted national attention.
A report released Wednesday in advance of a hearing by the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform details findings from a congressional investigation into voter suppression in minority communities. The investigation uncovered the emails between Cox and Seibel and points to Cox’s failure to anticipate the burden she placed on voters who lacked the time or transportation to participate in the election.
The congressional investigation determined Cox moved the polling site "without conducting appropriate due diligence, without consulting with the local community, and without taking simple steps to reduce the impact of the move on thousands of voters until after a public outcry."
Lauren Bonds, legal director for ACLU of Kansas, said the findings confirm the organization’s motivation for filing a lawsuit on Oct. 26, 2018, days before the Nov. 6 election. The new polling location, Bonds said, was "incredibly inconvenient."
"I think it really goes back to indifference," Bonds said. "That would be a reasonable concern most people would have if they were in touch with their constituents. It's a logical outcome that was disregarded, that this would have a disparate impact on the Hispanic community and communities of color in Dodge City."
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, called for the investigation into suspected voter suppression in Kansas, Georgia and Texas before his death last year.
Cox’s actions in Dodge City were of interest to the oversight committee because historical support of Latinos for Democratic candidates was expected to be a factor in the tight race for governor between then-Sen. Laura Kelly, a Democrat from Topeka, and Kris Kobach, a Republican who oversaw elections as Kansas Secretary of State. Kelly ultimately won 48% of the statewide vote, compared to 43% for Kobach.
In her interview with investigators, Cox said she didn’t consult with community groups or other residents about their concerns, even though she was aware people likely would be upset about moving to a new location.
Cox learned of planned construction at the Dodge City Civic Center, where polling typically takes place, in August 2018. As she weighed her options, she told Seibel she expected to get complaints no matter what decision she made.
Later, when criticism over polling access intensified, Seibel told Cox, "People just need to get over themselves."
"The ones complaining," Cox said, "do not even live here in Ford Co or some in Kansas."
Alejandro Rangel-Lopez, a high school student in Dodge City, became the lead plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit. He testified before a different congressional committee last year and said he tried to contact Cox about voting access.
"For a long time, other community members had voiced concerns to the county clerk about having only one polling site, but their words fell on deaf ears," Rangel-Lopez said.
The clerk exacerbated the problem by sending postcards to new voters with a wrong address for the new polling site.
Cox acknowledged during the investigation interview that she didn’t take steps to remedy the impact of the move — such as stationing people at the old voting location to provide directions to the new location — until after the public outcry.
Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light, which promotes civic engagement, said the controversy didn’t "come out of nowhere." He expressed concerns in 2017 after learning that long lines at the polling place had caused registered voters to walk away from the 2016 presidential election without casting a ballot.
"Voter suppression doesn't look like angry dogs barking at you and people sitting with baseball bats at the polling site," Hammet said. "Voter suppression now often looks like bureaucracy."
ACLU pleaded with Cox to open another polling location before filing its lawsuit. Cox spent more than $100,000 in legal fees before relenting in January 2019.
ACLU dropped the lawsuit when Cox agreed to open a second location for future elections.
"This wasn't a choice between a bad polling location and a bad polling location," Bonds said. "It was a choice between having one polling location that was bad or having multiple polling locations that would have been convenient and accessible to people."
The investigation report said Cox sought advice on closing the polling site from Kobach’s office but received no guidance beyond basic information about notice requirements and the Americans with Disabilities Act.