WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — More than 36,000 registered voters in Kansas are being asked to cast their ballots at new polling stations during the nation's first congressional election since President Donald Trump's November victory, prompting concerns that confusion could suppress turnout.
The April 11 special election will fill a vacancy in south-central Kansas' 4th District that was created when Trump chose former Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo as his CIA director.
Nine polling sites — affecting 36,417 registered voters across 50 precincts — will be moved for the special election in Sedgwick County, which includes the state's largest city of Wichita, the county's election office told The Associated Press.
The election falls during Holy Week, the annual Christian observance leading up to Easter Sunday. Many polling locations are in churches, so some were unavailable on short notice for the special election.
The polling site changes have raised concerns among the congressional campaigns and voting rights advocates because some of the precincts are located in low-income or minority districts where transportation may be difficult. Special elections are already typically low turnout affairs.
"It happens over and over again and it confuses voters ... primarily some inner-city or people with disabilities or senior citizens and a lot of them don't drive," said state Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat who has introduced a bill that would require Kansas election offices to mail registered voters a notification 30 days prior to a change in their voting location.
An analysis of registered voters in affected precincts shows the impact crosses party lines: 15,282 Republicans, 7,885 Democrats, 12,915 unaffiliated voters, and 345 Libertarians.
The changes for the upcoming congressional election come on top of about 25,000 voters in Sedgwick County affected in November's general election last year when voting locations for 60 precincts were moved, said Carole Neal, co-president for The League of Women Voters in Kansas. Three of the polling sites that were moved for the last election are again being moved for the upcoming special election.
"We are not moving them just because we feel like it," said Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman. "It is because the site is no longer available, and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it."
In addition to calendar conflicts at the church sites, one polling location was lost because a building was being torn down and another when the space was repurposed for a battered women's shelter, she said.
Election officials mailed notices of the voting site changes — along with an application for a mail-in ballot — about two weeks ago to voters affected by eight of those moves, Lehman said.
But election officials are still scrambling to find a new voting location for a ninth polling site after the Wichita church which had previously agreed to host it pulled out at the last minute.
Campaign officials for Republican Ron Estes said in an emailed statement that they are recommending people vote by advanced ballot to ensure there is no confusion about polling locations. Applications for advanced ballots can be found on Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach's website.
Democrat James Thompson's campaign manager said in an emailed statement that Kobach's "continued strategy of voter disempowerment was designed to primarily target poor and minority voters."