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With no polling place in this town, Latinos still vote despite voter suppression concerns


DODGE CITY, Kansas — A fresh “I voted” sticker gleaming on his leather jacket, Pedro Hernandez smiled shyly as his friends and neighbors steadily filed past into the cavernous polling site in this windswept former frontier town. After decades as a legal resident of the United States, Hernandez, 53, voted Tuesday in his first election before starting his job at a nearby slaughterhouse. Hernandez said he was spurred to become a citizen after watching the nation’s politics change. “It was easy,” he said speaking in Spanish through a translator as cattle trucks roared past. “It was my first time and I was a little nervous, but I wanted to vote because now I’m a citizen.” Activists warned for weeks that voters like Hernandez might struggle to vote in Dodge City after elections officials moved the city’s longtime and only polling location three miles away, a mile outside the city boundary, making it harder to get to. Officials said road construction — which hasn’t yet started — prompted the move. Hernandez did inadvertently try to vote at the old location on Tuesday morning, only to be intercepted by a small army of volunteers and voting-rights advocates who happily drove him and his wife to the new site. City and county officials also provided buses from the old site, along with free door-to-door rides for workers. “We’re getting this taken care of,” said Jose Vargas, 56, a longtime Dodge City resident who helped lead efforts to reach Hispanic voters, and who voted early so he could dedicate Election Day to helping others. “He’ll get to vote.” Along the brick-paved streets of Dodge City and around the country, voting-rights advocates say Republican officials desperate to maintain power are improperly depressing turnout, especially among minorities who tend to vote for Democrats. President Donald Trump and other Republican officials say tough voting requirements are needed to ensure that only legal voters exercise the hard-won right to vote. Elections officials across the country say they’ve never seen evidence of widespread voter fraud, and say the real problem is that so many Americans just don’t vote, a problem exacerbated by obstacles both obvious and subtle. One of the most pernicious problems, experts say, are long lines that dissuade impatient voters in the moment and for years into the future. Here in Ford County, Vargas said, the move was just one of many small and subtle ways in which local government fails to adequately consider the needs to Hispanics, who are 60 percent of the city’s residents, drawn to Southwestern Kansas for the steady jobs at the slaughterhouses and beef packing plants along the Santa Fe Trail. Vargas owns a company that helps Hispanic residents with their taxes and other paperwork, and said he believes the polling site move was done deliberately to disenfranchise his community. “Dodge City is a prime example but it is one of just hundreds or thousands of places that have these issues,” said Jessica Reeves, chief operating officer of Voto Latino, a national Hispanic-focused voting-rights group co-founded by actress Rosario Dawson. “This is happening all over the country and, unfortunately, nobody else is getting this kind of attention.” Not everyone in Dodge City who was eligible planned to vote this year. By 2 p.m., Luis Saenz hadn’t yet voted. The 19-year old had a farming job interview in the morning and just hadn’t made time to go, he said. The polls in Kansas close at 7 p.m. local time. “Honestly, I don’t know what the election is all about,” Saenz said after lunch at Tacos Jalisco, a popular Dodge City restaurant across the railroad tracks from the beef plant. “Nobody has told me anything about anything.” His comments drew a laugh from his aunt, Linda Tapia, 39, a legal resident who can’t vote. “Tell him to get out there,” she chided. “There’s no excuse.” A U.S. citizen, Saenz said he recognizes that his vote and voice matter because they represent people like his aunt, who cannot cast a ballot. Tapia’s sister, who is also a legal permanent resident, said Hispanic voters need to speak up for their community. “A lot of Hispanic people don’t think like our president, and if Hispanic people voted, things could change,” said Jocelin Olivera, 38. News Dodge City Midterm Elections Vaughan Nash waits in the pre-dawn darkness to vote in Dodge City, Kansas, during the Nov. 6, 2018 midterm election. Mandatory credit: Trevor Hughes-USA TODAY NETWORK Trevor Hughes, Trevor Hughes-USA TODAY NETWORK Elections officials for Ford County said the new voting site better accommodates Dodge City’s approximately 13,000 voters, who began lining up at the cavernous Western State Bank Expo Center before dawn Tuesday. A judge last week declined to order a second polling location in Dodge City. Justice Department officials said they were too busy to answer questions, and declined to permit a reporter to monitor their Dodge City election supervision efforts on Tuesday. In a statement, Ford County Administrator J.D. Gilbert said he and all the county’s election workers are committed to ensuring everyone gets to vote: “We do not have a big team, but we have a strong team and we have been quiet for a reason– because we have work to do.” Battles over voting access around the country have been fiercest where Republicans and Democrats are locked in tight election battles, including here in Kansas where the state’s top election official, Kris Kobach, is running for governor against a surprisingly strong Democratic opponent. Decreased Democrat turnout favors Kobach in this traditionally Republican state. Kobach has gained national attention for claiming, without substantial evidence, there’s widespread illegal voting by unlawful U.S. residents.
News Dodge City Midterm Elections Renee Lopez of San Diego, California, flashes “V” signs encouraging people to vote during a get-out-the-vote event on Nov. 6, 2018, 2018, in Dodge City, Kansas. Mandatory credit: Trevor Hughes-USA TODAY NETWORK Trevor Hughes, Trevor Hughes-USA TODAY NETWORK “There’s going to be a lot more turnout because of what Kobach wants to do,” Vargas said as he decorated his Mazda SUV with “vote” and “vota” with a chalk marker. “Somebody tried to do something wrong in Dodge City, and we need more of the young blood to get interested and vote and change things.” Voting-rights advocates say the tighter voter ID laws and other obstacles are the predicable fallout from a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that stated the Justice Department no longer needed to sign off on voting changes in states with a history of discriminatory laws. In Georgia, a judge blocked Republican-passed voter ID laws after concluding they overwhelmingly targeted the state’s Asian, black and Latino communities, while leaving the white community largely unaffected. In North Dakota, a judge allowed new Republican-passed voter ID laws that advocates say may prevent Native Americans living on reservations without street addresses from voting. In Nevada, the Walker River Paiute tribe successfully sued the federal government because they didn’t have their own polling site on the reservation about 100 miles southeast of Reno. In Michigan, elections officials were worried about lengthy lines dissuading voters who have to get back to work, because the Republican-controlled Legislature banned straight ticket voting. Straight ticket voting allows voters to fill in just one box on the ballot for either all Democrats or all Republicans. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a statement said the Justice Department was committed to making sure people who are allowed to vote can: “Any attempts to interfere or subvert our democratic process by foreign or domestic entities will be met with severe consequences.The American people can be confident that their voices will be heard.” In Dodge City, Sarah Heeke, 34, said the news coverage made her hometown sound a lot worse than it really is. Heeke, a lawyer, voted without a problem, she said, and didn’t anticipate anyone else having trouble either. Still, she said the media interest has sparked an appropriate conversation about who votes. According to the Pew Center on the States, as many as 51 million Americans — 24 percent of us — are eligible but aren’t even registered to vote. “I’m glad for the national attention. So much emphasis has been put on voting in Dodge City and hopefully it will ultimately increase voter turnout,” Heeke said, who brought her son, Bennett, 6, so he could see the process. Count first-time voter Jackie Diaz, 21, as someone feeling the pressure to vote. She skipped the 2016 presidential election but decided to cast her ballot after pressure from her parents. Accompanied by her two nieces, Diaz said she’d stressed about potential ID hassles but instead found the process easy. “I never really paid attention before,” she said. “But I know that every vote matters.”
News Dodge City Midterm Election. A poll worker wheels out a sign as the voting begins in Dodge City, Kansas, during the Nov. 6, 2018 midterm election Mandatory credit: Trevor Hughes-USA TODAY NETWORK
Trevor Hughes, Trevor Hughes-USA TODAY NETWORK
Copyright 2017 USATODAY.com

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