A group of often overlooked voters lives in downtown Fort Wayne.
Commuters, residents, visitors and tourists might not see these people because they’re largely out of sight, tucked away in a building at the corner of Calhoun and Superior streets. They’re inmates at the Allen County Jail, and according to the Allen County Election Board, it appears none of them voted in the May 5 primary election. Many inmates might not be aware they can vote while incarcerated.
Not every jail inmate is eligible, since anyone convicted of a felony does not have the right to cast a ballot. However, some inmates haven’t yet been convicted. That means any inmate awaiting trial who does not have a prior felony conviction is eligible to vote, provided they’re not convicted of one by Election Day.
In Indiana, only convicted felons actively serving time behind bars are prohibited from voting. Upon an inmate’s release, their voter rights are automatically restored, said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics.
Though the jail holds many inmates who have not been convicted, there’s no easy way to determine how many of the jail’s population are eligible to vote, said Steve Stone, public information officer for the Allen County Sheriff’s Office. When a person is booked into the jail, the staff has no way of knowing if an inmate has prior felony convictions without looking at individual criminal records, Stone said. The jail currently holds about 740 inmates and averaged about 640 inmates per day in 2015.
But few inmates exercise their voting right, Beth Dlug, Allen County’s director of elections, said last week.
"I’m not sure that we had anybody this time who did (vote)," Dlug said. "We did have some in the 2012 election, but it is rare."
To be able to vote, inmates must request the election board mail an absentee ballot, Dlug said. Inmates can call or fax a request for the absentee ballot application to the election board or download the form online. Once the inmate completes the application and returns it to the election board, an absentee ballot is mailed to the inmate, Dlug said. As long as the ballot is returned eight days before the election, the vote counts.
If the mailed ballot process seems complicated, especially for inmates, it used to be simpler. State statute dealing with elections allows local election boards to travel to voters who are confined – that is, unable to make it to a polling place – to administer the vote, Dlug said. While she’s not sure exactly when it happened, Dlug said the practice was discontinued before she took over as director in January 2009. Now the election board only administers the vote to residents with disabilities or who cannot make it to a polling place because of a medical issue.
While the traveling election board no longer helps jail inmates vote, inmates who ask for help with voting are accommodated, Stone said. If an inmate expresses an interest in voting and is eligible to vote, jail staff will send their information to the appropriate offices to start the process. However, jail staff does not, Stone said, approach inmates and ask if they’d like to vote.
"They have access to the newspaper every day and TV, so they do have access to know when voting is," Stone said. "We don’t come in and go through each block and ask people if they’d like to vote."
While not a huge block of voters, inmates could sway a tight race where a few dozen votes might make a difference, Downs said. However, he noted there are places campaigns can focus efforts that could earn the necessary votes that aren’t as socially controversial. Focusing efforts elsewhere could also be less time consuming than visiting jails to talk to inmates. Neighborhood association meetings are places where there are a lot of likely voters for campaigns to talk to, Downs said.
"There’s a simple calculation that campaigns have to make. They can look at the voter file and see who votes regularly, they can see who is registered and votes infrequently or never and those who never even registered," Downs said. "That third group, you have to convince to register, to vote and to vote for you. That’s a lot of talking. The people who show up and vote every election, all you have to do is convince them to vote for you."