WICHITA, Kan. — When iconic Dodge City, once the home to Wild West gunslingers and buffalo hunters, faced a lawsuit before the midterm elections for moving its sole polling place outside city limits, its top elections official turned to a hired legal gun to battle charges of voter suppression.
Ford County Clerk Debbie Cox hired Bradley Schlozman, who is little-known outside the legal community but well-known for defending states and towns accused of trying to restrict voting.
"I sort of liken it to someone who is accused of arson showing up at the trial with kerosene and matches," Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said of the hiring of Schlozman.
Schlozman was a top lawyer in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in the George W. Bush administration who has been involved in some of the thorniest voting issues of the last two decades.
At the Justice Department, Schlozman in 2005 backed Georgia, among the first states to enact a voter ID law, overruling the department's career attorneys who had argued it would reduce voting by minorities. After a court struck it down as an unconstitutional poll tax because it required voters to pay for IDs, lawmakers revised it in 2006 to make it easier to get IDs for free.
In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court approved Indiana's voter ID law and now 34 states have laws requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls, according to The National Conference of State Legislatures.
Georgia was at the center of a voting rights storm this year when the Democratic candidate for governor, Stacey Abrams, refused to concede to Republican Brian Kemp though she had fewer votes, accusing him of attempting to discourage minority voters from going to the polls with a combination of measures including voter ID.
Dodge City also became an unlikely flashpoint in the recent fight over voting rights. The city of 27,000 people in remote western Kansas has been transformed by immigrants drawn to its two massive meatpacking plants and Hispanics now comprise 60 percent of the population. Cox cited upcoming construction in moving the only polling location in Dodge City , which services 13,000 voters, a mile outside city limits. Democrats and the ACLU said the location was inconvenient for Hispanics because it was a mile from the nearest bus stop.
The ACLU lost its bid for an emergency order to open another voting location just days before the election, but its lawsuit is part of an ongoing effort to force Cox to open additional polling sites in Dodge City for future elections.
In the end, turnout in Dodge City was up 3.25 percent compared to the 2014 midterm election, which the Kansas Democratic Party credits to its get-out-the-vote effort and the national spotlight on the city after the polling site move. Donations poured in to advertise the new polling location and hundreds of volunteers turned up to drive people to vote and to canvass neighborhoods. Early voting in Dodge City nearly doubled to 52.7 percent this election — making Ford County the number one county in Kansas for advance ballots as a share of the total vote.
Schlozman declined to be interviewed for this story, saying in an email that it is his practice to litigate cases in the courtroom, not the media. He pointed to the robust turnout as evidence that the polling location had little impact.
"My client is very pleased that Election Day appeared to run incredibly smoothly and that the voting process was virtually seamless. Indeed, this year saw record turnout numbers for a non-presidential election," Schlozman said.
Many Americans are familiar with groups such as the ACLU that push to make it easier to vote. They oppose many measures such as voter ID laws, purges of voting lists and closing or relocating polling stations. Less familiar are a small group of conservative lawyers, including Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who champion what they call "voter integrity" laws aimed at preventing voter fraud and misconduct in administrating elections. Their issues erupted this year when some Florida Republicans accused Democratic-leaning county election managers of incompetence and misconduct in the tight governor and U.S. Senate races there, even though the GOP won both.
Schlozman has repeatedly dived into such fights since leaving the Justice Department in 2007. On his Wichita law practice website, Schlozman touts his representation of various states and cities and others sued over voting rights issues.
When Kobach introduced a requirement in Kansas that voters prove their U.S. citizenship, Schlozman wrote two legal briefs in 2016 supporting the Kansas law on behalf of the Indiana-based Public Interest Legal Foundation. A federal judge found the Kansas law unconstitutional, but the cases are still under appeal.
"On the right, I wouldn't say that there is necessarily a single counterweight to a group like the ACLU if you are talking about the breadth of its reach or national recognition. But there are some groups that do engage in litigation work in this area. One of the ones that comes to mind immediately is the Public Interest Legal Foundation," said Jason Snead, policy analyst in the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Schlozman also signed on to a brief filed in 2017 supporting Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted's efforts to remove inactive voters from the rolls. A federal appeals court last month ordered Ohio to allow voters who had been purged from the rolls for not voting over a six-year period to participate in this year's election.
"Mr. Schlozman representing the interests of the clerk (in Dodge City) shouldn't surprise anyone — given his history of the lack of enforcement of voting rights cases when he was head of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division," said Barry Grissom, the former U.S. attorney in Kansas appointed by President Barack Obama.
This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of Stacey Abrams' first name.