This story is part of "Every 30 Seconds," a collaborative public media reporting project tracing the young Latino electorate leading up to the 2020 presidential election and beyond.
In the fall of 2018, Alejandro Rangel-Lopez, then a senior at Dodge City High School in Kansas, joined friends at parent-teacher conferences in registering people to vote in the midterm election.
Then someone asked to check their voter registration status online. Rangel-Lopez glanced at the polling location address and noticed something was off.
“What popped up was not the civic center — which is where people would normally vote here in town — but instead of that, was the expo center, which is located outside of city limits,” he said.
It wasn’t a mistake. The Ford County Clerk had, in fact, moved Dodge City’s only polling location, which serves 13,000 voters. The county said the move was due to construction. But with the midterm elections only four weeks away, many were skeptical of the reason.
Rangel-Lopez said he worried what changing the polling location would mean for the Latino vote in his city. Dodge City is 60% Latino, with many working in the meatpacking plants there.
“This would further decrease Latino turnout and put Latinos in a place where, even if they wanted to go out and vote, it would be so inconvenient and out of the way.”
“This would further decrease Latino turnout and put Latinos in a place where, even if they wanted to go out and vote, it would be so inconvenient and out of the way,” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Kansas and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) of Kansas sued the Ford County Clerk for changing polling locations at such short notice, citing violations to Dodge City voters' constitutional and civil rights. Rangel-Lopez became a plaintiff in the case, representing Latino voters in Dodge City who were afraid to lose their jobs if they spoke up. A federal judge dismissed the case.
But what happened in Dodge City is one example of suppression of Latinos and black voters underway across the country — particularly as white Americans make up a declining share of the US electorate. And with the COVID-19 pandemic affecting this election cycle, advocacy groups worry it could get worse.
Approximately 32 million Latinos are expected to be eligible to vote in the general election this November, making them the nation’s largest minority voter group, according to the Pew Research Center. Eligible Latinos will surpass eligible black voters for the first time. Civic engagement and civil rights groups are working to make sure Latinos have access to the polls.
State governments keep people from voting in many different ways, said Arturo Vargas, president of NALEO Educational Fund, a group focused on Latino civic engagement. Examples include requiring voters to have certain photo IDs or purging voter rolls.
“And then there are unintentional ones that result in discouraging voters, for example, cutting down on early voting period so that there is less voting,” he said.
These tactics have intensified since 2013. In a landmark Supreme Court case that year, Shelby County v. Holder, the court removed key voter protections contained within the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. The court sided with a lower court’s decision that some of the protections were outdated — though opponents argued that removing them would pose barriers for minority voters in states with a history of discrimination. Under the decision, local and state governments no longer need federal approval to pass voting or election laws.
The original law was put in place to ensure black voters were not denied their right to vote. And without federal oversight, local governments may adopt restrictive voting practices, Vargas said.
As a result, he said, more lawsuits aiming to overturn these practices are expected in the lead-up to November.
“There have been some states where we have been successful in trying to get some of these voter suppression policies and practices withdrawn.”
“There have been some states where we have been successful in trying to get some of these voter suppression policies and practices withdrawn,” Vargas said.
Groups such as the ACLU and LULAC are leading the charge to ensure minority voters have fair access to the polls.
LULAC, the oldest known Hispanic organization in the US, was a co-plaintiff in the Dodge City case in 2018. It also filed a lawsuit last month against Texas officials, arguing the state’s vote-by-mail policies violate the Constitution.
To vote by mail in Texas, people must be disabled or serve in the military, or over 65 years of age. The argument for these restrictions is that voting by mail should only be available to voters who are physically unable to get to the polls, explained Domingo Garcia, LULAC’s national president.
But that holds back some voters — including minority and younger voters, Garcia said. And now, with the coronavirus, groups like LULAC argue there is even more reason to allow for a vote by mail.
“I don't know if la abuelita or la tía, grandma or grandpa, you know, aunt and uncle, are they going to risk their lives to go wait an hour, two hours, three hours to vote?” he said.
Latino voters historically prefer to vote in person, Vargas said. But he also doesn’t see an option but to expand access to voting by mail as the general election nears.
“Latinos are much less likely to have had experiences voting by mail than non-Latinos,” he said. “So, unless voting by mail arrangements aren't accompanied by very robust public education campaigns to adequately educate Latino voters about how to vote by mail, this may actually erect more barriers to people being able to vote.”
In late May, a US district judge moved to allow voting by mail for people concerned about the coronavirus. But an appellate panel put that on hold days later.
Garcia says he likes to focus on small wins. LULAC’s next target state is Arizona, he added.
“I keep thinking that mañana things will be better for Jose and Maria on Main Street, and for Billy Bob and Mary Sue on Main Street. ”
“You know, I’m an eternal optimist,” he said. “I keep thinking that mañana things will be better for Jose and Maria on Main Street, and for Billy Bob and Mary Sue on Main Street. ”
Another win can be traced to the Dodge City case. It took two years, but the city now has three polling sites.
Rangel-Lopez, the plaintiff, who is now 19, is glad to see that but says voter suppression elsewhere is real.
“I’m very worried about what’s going to happen,” he said. “And there needs to be a lot more attention to this issue than what we’re currently giving it.”
This year, Rangel-Lopez will vote for the first time in a presidential election. He's been reflecting on his achievement as a high school senior two years ago with the legal case over polling sites.
“You are never too young to be politically active or to affect change in your community, in your state or nationally,” he said.
Rangel-Lopez learned that lesson. Now, he wants to make sure other young people learn it, too.