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Dodge City prevails in voting rights case over at-large elections

While the plaintiffs showed the Latino population in Dodge City is both large enough and geographically compact, they failed to show the white majority vote routinely blocks their preferred candidate.

(CN) — A federal judge ruled Wednesday in favor of Dodge City, Kansas, in a voting rights case where a pair of city residents claimed the current at-large method used to elect city commissioners denied Latino residents equal opportunity to participate in the local political process.

In his decision, Chief U.S. District Judge Eric F. Melgren said the plaintiffs did not meet all the requirements set out by the U.S. Supreme Court for relief under the Voting Rights Act in the 1986 ruling Thornburg v. Gingles. In that case, the high court found plaintiffs must show the minority group is large enough and geographically compact enough to constitute a single-member district, that it is politically cohesive, and that white majority votes block the minority group's preferred candidate.

The plaintiffs here met the first and second preconditions, the George W. Bush appointee wrote, but not the third.

"Here, plaintiffs have not shown that white bloc voting in Dodge City Commission elections defeats the Latino-preferred candidates of choice 'most of the time.' Across the four endogenous elections analyzed, the court identified eight Latino-preferred candidates. Of those, five were elected," Melgren wrote.

"Because plaintiffs failed to meet one of the Gingles preconditions, the matter is over."

The decision left the plaintiffs to consider their options.

“We presented clear evidence of a Voting Rights Act violation in Dodge City, much of which the court credited," a legal team of ACLU of Kansas, ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, Cleary-Gottlieb, and the UCLA Voting Rights Project said in a statement. "We are currently exploring next steps in this case and will continue to work for a truly representative democracy that ensures Latine voters can have their voices heard in Dodge City."

"Latine," a word also used in the complaint, is a gender-neutral form of the word "Latino."

Attorneys for the city did not respond to an emailed request for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Melgren previously ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in a key decision in December, where he described their evidence as "slim" but ruled the case should still go forward.

"In cases like this, intent is best evaluated by a fact finder at trial instead of on summary judgment," Melgren wrote then.

Miguel Coca and Alejandro Rangel-Lopez sued the city in December 2022, claiming the current at-large method used to elect city commissioners denied Dodge City's Latino residents an equal opportunity to participate in the municipal political process. Latinos represent 65% of the city's total population and 46% of its voting-age population, the plaintiffs said in the suit.

"Despite the significant size of the Latine population in Dodge City and their extensive participation in the community, there are no Latine elected officials serving on the commission," Coca and Rangel-Lopez said in the complaint.

Dodge City uses a commission-manager form of government. The commission is comprised of five members, which serve either a two- or four-year term depending on how many votes they receive.

The city is not divided into districts. Instead, commissioners are elected via an at-large voting system.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice contacted Ford County, where Dodge City is located, for information regarding Dodge City’s elections. The department closed the matter "without any indication that either Ford County or Dodge City had engaged in any wrongdoing," according to Melgren's ruling this past December.

The commission has looked at changing to a system where some members would be elected by district.

This lawsuit also named the city commission, individual commission members, the mayor and the vice-mayor as defendants, but they were dropped from the case in February.

Dodge City is in southwest Kansas, roughly 150 miles west of Wichita, and renowned for its 19th century Old West history.

"Dodge City became a rowdy town famous for its saloons, outlaws, and Boot Hill Cemetery. Bat Masterson, and Wyatt Earp earned their fame as lawmen during this time," the city says on its website. "Today Dodge City is a growing community, and a popular tourist destination."

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Categories / Courts, Elections, Government, Politics

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