In Fort Hays, a monthslong clash over a community polling place continues before the election this month. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Two Fort Hays students are fighting for an on-campus polling station. The area’s county clerk continues to shoot down the proposal. Neither side is budging ahead of the November election.
Students Grace McCord and Madison Albers argue that an on-campus polling place would boost student voter engagement, allow easier voting access for the entire precinct and provide lower-income and elderly residents with a more accessible way to vote.
Ellis County Clerk Bobbi Dreiling points to historically low voter turnout in that area and community sentiment against voting on campus to defend herself in what has become an increasingly public fight over the polling place.
“I don’t know what their endgame is,” Dreiling said. “I really don’t.”
The conflict began in the early months of summer, when Dreiling decided to close two Hays polling places and find a new location for these voters. Dreiling said she closed the site at 601 Main St., a few blocks from the university, due to low voter turnout, and closed another one, located at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, because it was not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
While Dreiling was scouting around the area for potential locations, she was contacted by the two students, who wanted an on-campus location as part of their advocacy work through the American Democracy Project at Fort Hays State.
The two had researched voting numbers and found that Fort Hays students had lower levels of voter engagement compared with other Kansas universities. The average national voting rate for college students is around 66% engagement, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.
At the University of Kansas, which has a voting station on campus, voter engagement is at 71% for the population of about 28,000 students. At Fort Hays, a campus of little more than 14,000 students, the average voter engagement is 62.4%, according to Albers and McCord.
The two wanted to remedy this, starting a campus-wide campaign to get the location, including working with student government, Greek organizations and community collaborations.
“Of course we would like to see that number go up,” McCord said. “But it’s so much more than that. It’s about creating community connections, about empowering young people to be engaged in democracy for the rest of their life.”
They suggested two campus locations they’d scouted to Dreiling, but neither one could be used because of certain poll station requirements, such as parking.
While they worked to find a suitable location, Dreiling was offered a contract with the Messiah Lutheran Church. She accepted the contract before the students came back to her with a third on-campus location, one that fit her previous requirements.
She said she couldn’t pass up the church opportunity and had concerns about using the college campus, which she described as small and difficult to navigate for elderly voters.
Dreiling reasoned the campus area also had only a small number of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 24. She estimates there are only 412 registered voters in this category, and she’s not sure how many were college students.
“I’m not dealing just with students,” Dreiling said. “I also have a whole community that I have to look at.”
But McCord and Albers, who had spent months on the campaign, rallying students and administrators, found this decision difficult, especially since they had worked around all of the clerk’s requirements and generated a lot of community and college excitement.
“We’re not saying that this polling place by moving it to campus is going to make an overwhelming amount of students change their address,” McCord said. “The work that Madison and I do is not to try and get people to register here in Ellis County, it is to get them to engage in healthy civic engagement processes. I just don’t think that her and us are necessarily on the same page.”
They also knew condensing poll locations generally improves voter turnout, and felt the new location would benefit all community members, not just students. An ACLU report shows voter participation in Kansas has declined by more than 5 percentage points — from 55.76% of registered voters casting a ballot in the 2018 general election to 50.5% showing up for the 2022 general election.
Fairly soon after the decision, Dreiling said she met with an ACLU representative and a professor to explain her reasoning. McCord and Albers weren’t able to attend.
In the months since then, things have been fairly quiet — until Dreiling’s husband found an ACLU post about her and the polling situation on Facebook, one of several ACLU posts about the situation launched ahead of Tuesday’s vote. Radio ads have also gone out telling Hays voters to become part of the polling change effort, along with a petition form.
Dreiling said she feels frustrated, especially since she believes there has been a lack of communication with her. The other parties involved believe the on-campus polling place needs to be put in place.
“Ms. Dreiling has for months been disappointingly dismissive of the need for an accessible polling location as repeatedly stated by many of the Hays voters she serves,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the Kansas ACLU chapter.
Albers and McCord say they would be open to work with Dreiling in the future, though their goal remains unchanged.
“Our final goal for this specific initiative is obviously getting a polling place in the near future, but just throughout Kansas our goal has always been to get as many students voting, as many students politically engaged,” Albers said.
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