‘A Slap In The Face': Missourians With Felony Convictions Don't Want To Wait To Vote
Eric Harris never thought about voting until he went to state prison.
While working in Tipton Correctional Facility’s law library, Harris began researching laws that led to his four-year sentence for assault in 2014 and the times he spent in jails on drug possession and gun charges.
After months of research, he realized he wanted to help change some of the laws that land many African Americans in prison. He said he wants former prisoners to have the right to vote immediately, which would allow them to vote for people who could change laws and to decide whom to prosecute.
“It's so important for people that's involved in the judicial system to have the right to vote and have their rights reinstated to vote simply because that's the highest power of the land — being a political power holder,” Harris said. “It gives you all the power to allow your government to be ran correctly by the people that’s representing us."
According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, 62,145 people will not be able to cast a vote in today’s presidential election because they are on probation or parole. Ex-offenders and activists are calling for lawmakers to quickly restore the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people.
For years Harris did not vote because he could not see how it would benefit his community. The 28-year-old’s north St. Louis neighborhood is riddled with gun violence, poverty and vacancy — all issues he began to care about while imprisoned.
“I come from a neighborhood where who’s thinking about voting,” Harris said. “People in general in the community that I come from are already formerly incarcerated people, and they already have the mind frame that my vote is not going to count.”
Although Harris became passionate about politics while in prison, he was not able to voice his opinion on local or state matters when he finished his sentence. Last week, Harris voted for the first time in his life. He regained his right to vote in August after serving nearly three years of parole.
Harris said it's important for people who served time to regain their right to vote, so they can elect officials who will work to improve their communities.
“We are having our rights violated, our human rights, and having our common law rights violated. And it will hold more justice for us to educate our formerly incarcerated people and our people in general to vote if nothing else locally,” Harris said.
Harris is urging state lawmakers to restore voting rights for ex-offenders. He also talks with former prisoners about the value of pursuing higher education through the group From Prison Cells to PHD and is a gun violence mediator for the Urban League of Metro St. Louis.
Tracy Stanton is also another first-time voter. She voted in the Missouri primary and plans to cast her vote at the polls today. In 2016, Stanton rotated in and out of the St. Louis Workhouse three times in six months for possession charges. The next year, she served four months in a state prison for possession of a controlled substance.
The 38-year-old did not pay much attention to politics or to local government before she went into a state prison. It wasn’t until she went to a “Close the Workhouse” protest in 2018 that she saw how unified voices can influence policy and demand change.
Now that she can cast her ballot this year, Stanton said she can choose officials who share her values. She said not being able vote the past two years while on probation was like being stripped of her citizenship.
“You are expected to work in this society and pay taxes, and for you to just tell me that I can do all of this and be a part of society, but I can't be a part of who governs me,” Stanton said, “it's a slap in the face.”
Stanton works with the St. Louis chapter of EX-incarcerated People Organizing on various campaigns that include bringing better health care to local jails and prisons, and she is a bail disruptor at the Bail Project, where she helps low-income people who are awaiting trial with bail money. She also talks to formerly incarcerated people about their voting rights. Stanton said lawmakers should listen to people who have served time in prison to help shape policy.
Both Missouri state Rep. Rasheen Aldridge and Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, two St. Louis Democrats, introduced bills last session calling for the immediate restoration of voting rights for people with felony convictions. Neither bill was successful because the session shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Aldridge plans to reintroduce his bill during the next session. He said people should not be disenfranchised just because they served time.
Aldridge said some Republicans will likely oppose his bill on the grounds that it would only benefit Democrats.
“It helps both sides. It has nothing really to do with a party that really restores a right to individuals that shouldn't have those rights taken away,” Aldridge said.
Both Republicans and Democrats should see the bill as one way to reform the criminal justice system, said Jeanie Thies, Lindenwood University political science professor.
“People who are in favor of restoring voting rights support things like putting abusive policing in check, having more fairness in sentencing, fairness to people of color, to people in economically disadvantaged communities,” Thies said. “So if somebody has been railroaded or just discriminated against, the system is doubly unfair to deny them the right to pick their representatives and their leaders.”
Both Harris and Stanton said that restoring the voting rights of over 62,000 formerly incarcerated people may not have influence over a presidential election but that those votes can be a deciding factor in local elections. That is why Stanton and Harris are pressing Missouri lawmakers to pass legislation that secures the voting rights for those with felony convictions.
“It’s important to be able to have a piece of knowing who you’re going to put in office, have a piece of knowing that when that person is in office you had an opportunity to cast a vote on that person,” Harris said.
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