On November 8, 2016, 32-year-old real estate broker Ian Barnhart was detained in Indiana’s Allen County Jail, awaiting trial on a drunk driving charge. Four days earlier, when he was first taken into custody, he had been looking forward to casting a ballot on Election Day. But he never got that chance.
Barnhart didn’t vote in the presidential election because Republican Allen County Sheriff David Gladieux refused to offer absentee ballots or transport detainees to vote in person at the voting center, located just one block from his jail.
In a lawsuit filed in Indiana federal court in March 2017, Barnhart and the roughly 150 other people who were eligible to vote in the general election while detained at the jail claim they’re owed monetary damages to account for the fact that Gladieux denied their requests for ballots, leaving them disenfranchised. Attorneys for the plaintiffs and voting law expert Rick Hasen said they believe this is the first class-action suit seeking monetary damages for detainees denied the right to vote.
Indiana law prohibits anyone serving time for a felony from casting a ballot — but a majority of the jail’s detainees on Election Day were eligible to vote, either because they were pre-trial and couldn’t afford bond or because they were serving misdemeanor sentences. Under Indiana’s jail standards, all eligible voters should be allowed to vote by absentee ballot, and the sheriff should make arrangements with election officials to provide those ballots to inmates, the lawsuit claims.
“If there were voting machines in every county jail in the country during the 2016 election, what would have happened?”
Last week, a federal judge certified the class, allowing the lawsuit to proceed on behalf of all U.S. citizens held at the Allen County Jail in November 2016 who were registered to vote, were not serving a sentence for a felony crime, and were denied the right to vote in the general election.
Attorney David Frank, who is representing the plaintiffs, told ThinkProgress that while the lawsuit targets Allen County, Indiana’s third-largest county, it’s likely that detainees across the state were denied the right to vote as well.
“It seems that Allen County is not unique in disenfranchising voters, and I doubt that the state of Indiana is likewise unique in the disenfranchisement of a substantial bloc of voters,” he said. “If there were voting machines in every county jail in the country during the 2016 election, what would have happened?”
Frank told ThinkProgress that he suspects political motives behind Gladieux’s decision, as a majority of the inmates were African American voters who are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates.
“Obviously there are some white supremacists in jail… but I think we know which way this would go,” he said. “The vast majority of voters would have gone one way.”
The lawsuit also alleges that Demetrius Buroff, a detainee who was awaiting trial and could not afford his bond, circulated a handwritten petition in the jail in November 2016. The roughly 35 detainees who signed his petition claimed they wanted to file a class action because they were denied absentee ballots. (Buroff was previously a named plaintiff in the lawsuit, until attorneys discovered last year that he was not actually registered to vote in November 2016.)
Gladieux did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a motion in court, he argued that he has “no record of any inmate detained in the Allen County Jail timely requesting an absentee ballot for the 2016 general election.” He claims that had an appropriate request been made, he would have provided absentee ballots.
But Frank argues that even if that were true, the sheriff still has an affirmative obligation to offer ballots to those who want them.
While the litigation focuses on the 2016 election, Frank said he hopes a settlement would involve an agreement by the sheriff to offer detainees voting opportunities in future elections, as the problem of disenfranchisement in jails is ongoing. “I think that is one of the primary sites of disenfranchisement in 2018,” he said.
The litigation comes at a time when inmates’ civil rights and the disenfranchisement of felons are in the spotlight across the country.
In neighboring Illinois, which has a similar policy allowing anyone in jail who is not serving time for a felony to cast a ballot, an advocacy organization began going into Chicago’s Cook County Jail this year to give detainees the opportunity to vote in person. A pending bill in the state legislature would make the Cook County Jail — one of the largest jails in the country — a temporary polling site during elections, and would require other jails throughout the state to form an absentee voting process for eligible voters.
A number of states have also begun to loosen their strict felon disenfranchisement laws, which date back to the post-Civil War era. Alabama last year officially defined which crimes prohibit someone from casting a ballot, allowing tens of thousands of people with criminal records to vote for the first time. And in Virginia, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) individually restored voting rights to more than 156,000 people, a national record. In November, Florida voters will also have the opportunity to pass a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights to people upon the completion of their felony sentences.