JoCo polling place to stay at police training center despite disenfranchisement concerns

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Johnson County does not plan to move a polling place out of a police training academy ahead of next month’s municipal elections, despite concerns from activists that the location will dissuade voters of color from casting ballots.

In a letter to the county last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas applauded the decision to put a polling place on Johnson County Community College’s campus but voiced concern about the building election officials chose: the Johnson County Regional Police Academy.

“Our community partners had received several complaints from folks who were concerned that having a polling location inside the police academy at the community college would disenfranchise voters of color who may feel intimidated about exercising their constitutional right to vote within a police department,” Sharon Brett, legal director at ACLU Kansas, said.

Brett noted that following a year of protest and debate about the role of law enforcement, election officials needed to exercise greater care to avoid any action that might contribute to voter intimidation.

After posting on Twitter Friday afternoon, Brett said, the ACLU received a letter from Johnson County Election Commissioner Fred Sherman explaining that the county would not move the polling site so close to an election.

Sherman’s letter, provided to The Star, explains that the county has used the police academy as a polling place since 2016 without complaint.

Sherman said the polling place serves two off-campus voting precincts, not students, and that officials at Johnson County Community College have identified it as the best on-campus location for voting.

Moving the polling place at this point, Sherman wrote, would cause confusion as notification cards have already been sent telling voters where to go on Nov. 2nd.

“The JCCC facility is not a police station staffed by police officers and used for public safety operations,” Sherman wrote. “It is a flex-space multi-use training facility. On election day, the voters will be the primary users of the building.”

Anita Austin, a program director for Loud Light at JCCC who raised the concern to the ACLU, said she plans to work with college officials to seek an alternative location for November and future elections. Loud Light, a non-profit that encourages youth voting, has been working across the state to put polling places on college campuses.

The fact that police may not be actively present in the academy on election day, Austin said, doesn’t negate the potential for voter deterrence.

“Most citizens aren’t going to distinguish between the different type of activity that the police station has ongoing there,” Austin said.

“Johnson County does represent such a large population of diversity ... I consider it an immense tragedy that this is the school where this is happening.”

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