Federal Judge Upholds At-Large Elections for Dodge City, Kansas Commission

A federal judge ruled yesterday that Dodge City, Kansas’ at-large method for electing members to its city commission does not unlawfully discriminate against Latino voters. 

The ruling comes as part of a 2022 lawsuit filed on behalf of Latino voters who alleged that members of their community do not have an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice to the nonpartisan five-member commission — the municipal governing body that is in charge of setting the city’s tax rates, budget and more. 

The small southwest city, located in Ford County, is historically known as a frontier cattle town, but has experienced significant population growth in recent years due to large numbers of immigrants from Latin American countries. 

Latino voters argued that the city’s at-large voting system violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights and sought to create a district-based voting system whereby elections would take place in even-numbered years. In contrast, the at-large method upheld in yesterday’s order provides for a system in which commissioners are elected by voters across the entire city in odd-numbered years. 

Judge Eric F. Melgren — a George W. Bush appointee — concluded in yesterday’s ruling that the plaintiffs did not meet all the criteria needed to prove a Voting Rights Act violation.   

According to the lawsuit, no Latino-preferred officials have served on the commission in at least two decades despite Latino voters accounting for 65% of Dodge City’s total population. But Melgren found that the plaintiffs did not adequately prove that the city’s at-large system deprives them of the ability to elect their candidates of choice. 

“Plaintiffs have failed to present sufficient evidence showing that white bloc voting usually prevents Latino-preferred candidates from winning elections,” Melgren’s ruling states. 

In an earlier ruling denying Dodge City’s motion to dismiss the case, Melgren rejected the defendants’ novel legal argument that only the U.S. attorney general — but not private individuals — can bring lawsuits under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. “Scores if not hundreds of cases have proceeded under the assumption that Section 2 provides a private right of action,” Melgren concluded in an April 2023 order. 

Per reporting from Courthouse News Service, attorneys for the plaintiffs said in a statement that they “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.”

Read the opinion here.

Learn more about the case here.