A judge's ruling moves forward a potentially groundbreaking federal lawsuit alleging Allen County Sheriff David Gladieux prevented hundreds of jail inmates from voting in the 2016 presidential election.
The class-action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Fort Wayne last year claims Gladieux “systematically disenfranchised hundreds of eligible voters held in the Allen County Jail during the 2016 general election by refusing to provide them absentee ballots or alternative access to the polls.”
Demetrius Buroff and Ian Barnhart say in court documents they were in jail on Election Day but were not allowed to vote. They are seeking unspecified monetary damages from Gladieux.
Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California Irvine and an expert on election law, said in an email Wednesday the case might be the first of its kind in the U.S.
He said plaintiffs in similar, earlier cases have successfully sued for money. What is different about the local case, according to Hasen, is that it is a class action by prisoners seeking damages for voting rights.
“Other kinds of lawsuits have sought not damages but access to voting among detained prisoners not yet convicted of a crime that would cause them to forfeit their voting rights,” said Hasen, who co-founded the Election Law Journal and has written several books on election law.
Only convicted felons serving time behind bars are prohibited from voting in Indiana. Buroff was jailed in October 2016 on misdemeanor charges, and Barnhart was being held in early November that year on felony charges but had not been convicted, according to court documents.
Chief Judge Theresa Springmann ruled last week that information in court documents meets requirements for a class-action lawsuit, which means it allows for many claims for damages to be filed together rather than separately.
The lawsuit could apply to more than 300 inmates, court documents said.
“We have identified 157 people so far that we believe to be definitely part of the class,” lawyer David Frank, who is representing the plaintiffs, said in an email. “There may be more.”
Adam Griffith, a spokesman for the Allen County Sheriff's Department, said he could not comment on the lawsuit.
Standards for Indiana jails say administrators should arrange for eligible inmates to vote by absentee ballot, court documents said, but the rules do not spell out how that should be accomplished.
Sheriff's department spokesman Steve Stone told The Journal Gazette in 2016 jail staff works with inmates who express an interest in voting, but jailers do not approach inmates to ask if they want to vote.
Frank, of Christopher C. Myers and Associates in Fort Wayne, said jail staff also could have set up a place inside the jail for inmates to vote or transported them about a block away from the jail to the Rousseau Center to cast ballots.
“I think if they had one voting booth, you could get it done in a day,” he said.
Amy Scrogham, Allen County assistant director of elections, said ballots cast by inmates are rare.
“I think we had two this year,” she said, adding that she believes notifications are posted inside the jail for inmates who want to vote.
To be able to vote, inmates must ask the election board to mail them an absentee ballot application. Once that is completed, a ballot is mailed to the inmate.
The ballot has to be returned to elections officials by noon on the day of the election to count, Scrogham said.