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  • Foto del escritorStefania Lugli

After a 5 day trial, federal judge to decide whether Dodge City’s elections discriminate against Latino voters

By Stefania Lugli | March 9, 2024

The city contested  a lawsuit brought forth by ACLU Kansas accusing the city’s at-large election system of diluting Latino votes.


Dodge CIty Court
Picture from iStock

Voting rights lawyers offered a passionate rebuke of Dodge City’s at-large election system, arguing that the city’s current system deprives Latino voters of sufficient representation on the city commission.


“This case really goes to the heart of how American representation should work,” plaintiff attorney Jonathan Blackman said in his closing argument. “We’re talking about protecting the right and ability of minority voters to vote for their chosen candidate.”

Attorneys for the city counter that a lack of Latino representation on the commission is the result of factors beyond local government’s control.  


In December 2022, ACLU Kansas and other voting rights groups filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming that Latinos would overwhelmingly back other Latinos for seats on the City Commission but are restrained by an at-large system that favors white voters.


As previously reported by The Journal, the ACLU Kansas suit, Coca v. City of Dodge City, focuses on the role of the at-large system, alleging that it dilutes the voting power of the Hispanic community, a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause


For the plaintiffs to win their case, they must meet their burden of proof, meaning that the team would have had to introduce enough evidence for Chief U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren to determine that Dodge City is at fault for a discriminatory effect in its elections. 


The plaintiffs’ large legal team — which included attorneys from ACLU Kansas, the UCLA Voting Rights Project, the national ACLU and two out-of-state law firms — said this case could set a local precedent for “protecting the right and ability of minority voters to vote for their chosen candidate,” as said by Blackman, who delivered closing arguments.


One contention was the geographic disbursement of Latinos in Dodge, data relevant to the argument that switching to a single-member district election model would result in better Latino representation on the city commission. 


While the defense argued that Latinos lived spread out throughout Dodge City — thus rendering the idea that a Latino would be elected in a densely-Latino district futile — plaintiffs said the opposite was true. Plaintiffs presented recent U.S. Census tract data showing how an east-west boundary divides Dodge City. According to their data and analysis, the southern half of Dodge houses a dense Latino population, much more significant than a few pockets of Latinos in the north.


The Journal obtained public address records last month showing that residents of the city’s north side dominate representation on the commission.


The city said that one reason for the lack of Latinos on its city commission is due to poor civic engagement. Defense attorney Anthony Rupp said Latinos have had “every opportunity possible to get active in the community and vote,” claiming that plaintiffs were basing their allegations off of misperceptions and they are unsupported by Latino organizations in Dodge City — despite both plaintiffs being Latino Dodge Citians. One of them, Alejandro Rangel-Lopez, coordinates New Frontiers, a youth civic engagement program focused on grassroots community building amongst Latinos in southwest Kansas. 

 

The city also argued that an at-large election wouldn’t be enough to have significant discriminatory impacts, highlighting several local directives it does to encourage civic engagement, including their efforts in translating all government materials in Spanish and programs like Engage Dodge


Both sides frequently referenced a 2011 inquiry from the Department of Justice, when it contacted Ford County for information regarding Dodge City’s elections. Plaintiffs pointed out that Ford County hired an attorney who reportedly told officials that “there could be a potential problem,” and that Dodge City should move to single-member districts “to avoid problems down the road.”


The city argued that the attorney’s comments were moot, considering the fact that the DOJ closed its inquiry without providing evidence to Ford County or Dodge City of any discriminatory effect of its elections. 


Another common talking point was Joseph Nuci, a Latino city commissioner who won his seat in 2021. The defense cited his successful election as evidence against the plaintiffs’ argument that at-large elections are preventing a more-Latino city commission. 


Blackman, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he “didn’t want to have to bring it up” but Nuci did not publicly identify as a Latino until after ACLU Kansas filed its lawsuit. Nuci lost his seat the following election. The former city commissioner did not appear in court for testimony. 


The five-day trial went into recess before noon Friday, March 1. Plaintiffs and defendants have until March 22 to file their final briefs to the Court. Then, Melgren will review and issue his decision. It could be months before he issues a ruling.


This article has been published with permission of our collaborating partner The Journal.


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