Dodge City activists opened eyes to racial bias



September 24, 2019 - 10:22 AM

We’re in the midst of National Hispanic Heritage month, and activists will be receiving an important honor on the first Saturday of October. At the Kansas ACLU’s annual Free State Forum, the honorees will include “League of United Latin American Citizens and high school senior Alejandro Rangel-Lopez, who successfully advocated for equitable access to the ballot in Dodge City.”

It can be easy to forget what happened nearly a year ago in Dodge City. The city’s sole polling site was moved to an expo center outside of town. Activists raised alarms over access, and for a short time the dispute became a national story.

Dodge City’s population is more than 60 percent Hispanic or Latino, so the story wasn’t just about a polling place. It was about who could get to the polls. It was about whose voice — and whose vote — counted. While it might seem simple to white people to drive to an expo center, if someone doesn’t have a car or access to easy public transportation that trip isn’t so easy.

Thankfully, the story has a happy ending. The national attention ensured that activists descended on Dodge City last year to make sure that voters could get to the expo center.

Ford County Clerk Debbie Cox, who was sued by the ACLU, has said she will plan to have two polling places open in future elections with public transit stops.

But the story also shows why advocacy from LULAC and Rangel-Lopez is so important. The right to vote matters. If you meet the basic qualifications and want to cast a ballot, you should be able to do so. City officials should not be setting up barriers to exercising this right. They should be taking them down and inviting more people in.

Motivations matter less than effects. The effects of the Dodge City decision were — potentially — hugely problematic. Community voices needed to speak, and speak loudly. They did, and the problem was ultimately addressed.

Let’s be frank: If you’re a white person, activism can sometimes seem overwrought. What are all these folks worried about? Why do they see racial bias everywhere? Can’t they understand we’re trying to do our best? Just calm down!

That’s a viewpoint based in privilege. It’s a viewpoint based on living in a society that’s crafted to support people who look and sound like you. For communities of color, that support isn’t a given. Activism is a necessity. Otherwise, you run the risk of simply not being heard. The ACLU’s honor to Dodge City activists is a richly deserved one.