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One Man Fights For Missourians With Felonies To Regain Voting Rights When Released

Michael B. Thomas
St. Louis Public Radio
Ronnie Amiyn stands outside Gambrinus Hall in the Marine Villa neighborhood, where he would vote Tuesday if he could cast his ballot. In Missouri, formerly incarcerated people cannot vote until they complete their court ordered probation or parole term. Amiyn is working with the St. Louis chapter of EX-incarcerated People Organizing to try to persuade Missouri lawmakers to immediately restore the voting rights of people who leave prison.

There are more than 3,400 St. Louisans who cannot vote Tuesday in the city’s mayoral election because they have not yet completed their probation or parole term. Missouri activists and lawmakers are pushing to restore voting rights more quickly to formerly incarcerated people so they can participate in local and state elections.

In the early 1990s, Ronnie Amiyn got his first introduction to community organizing as a teenager. He briefly heard organizers at a community meeting at the Cochran Youth and Family Center near Columbus Square discuss politics and social responsibility.

Amiyn never made it back to the center to learn more. In 1993, police arrested him for robbery, assault and sexual assault. He pleaded guilty to the charges, and a judge gave him 30 years in prison.

While in prison, he attended religious services and converted to Islam.

Amiyn left prison in 2018 after 25 years. Today, he is the housing coordinator for the Criminal Justice Ministry’s Release to Rent program, which helps formerly incarcerated people with housing and other services. Because he served time in prison, it took him decades to be able to do the community work that long inspired him.

“I didn’t become like this decent, upright individual overnight,” said Amiyn, 46.

Amiyn wanted to do more for his community by voting in local elections. But under Missouri law, formerly incarcerated people cannot vote until they complete their court-ordered probation or parole. He has more than two years left on parole.

“I want to be a part of the community,” Amiyn said. “I want to have a say in the community, but how can I do it with my hands tied and my mouth is muffled?”

He’s among more than 3,400 St. Louisans who cannot vote Tuesday in the city’s mayoral election because they have not yet completed their probation or parole term. About 66% of those residents, including Amiyn, are Black people. Every election, people who are under state supervision are reminded that they cannot cast their vote.

Amiyn said it frustrates him that he cannot contribute to his community and help change his family’s life in a positive way by exercising his right to vote.

In January, state Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis, introduced a bill in the House to immediately restore voting rights to Missourians on probation and parole. The bill does not have a companion bill in the Senate, so it has little chance to become law in the Republican-controlled legislature.

Missouri lawmakers are focused on restricting voting rules, just as they did when they passed a law requiring people to present photo identification at the polls, so it may be difficult for Aldridge to get many Republicans to support the bill, said David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“By and large, Democrats prefer reforms that make it easier for people to vote,” Kimball said. “Republicans prefer reforms that place more restrictions and make it harder, because politically, both sides tend to believe that higher turnout helps Democrats and lower turnout helps Republicans win.”

Some say Missouri lawmakers have no intention of changing the law, because it would make it easier for formerly incarcerated people who are Black to vote.

“They are trying to keep the power in the rural white areas and those privileged ZIP codes,” said Jennifer Hernandez, an activist with the DREAM collective at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, a group of scholars and activists working to dismantle racism through education and advocacy work. “So, any way that they can cut off access to citizenship and democracy for people of color or people who are disenfranchised or people with marginalized identities, they are doing it.”

Amiyn is working with the St. Louis chapter of EX-incarcerated People Organizing on voting campaigns where he participates in discussions with local and state policymakers, lawyers and activists about immediately restoring voting rights for formerly incarcerated people. He also a member of the Missouri CURE board, where he focuses on disseminating information about mistreatment in prison and policies and laws that contradict positive rehabilitation experiences for former prisoners.

Amiyn said he wants to vote for School Board members, his alderperson and state lawmakers who would increase Missouri’s minimum wage.

He also wants to help elect people who would pass laws that prevent employers or landlords from requiring people disclose their convictions, often referred to as ban-the-box legislation. In St. Louis, the Board of Aldermen last year prohibited business owners with 10 or more employees from not hiring people because of their arrests or convictions.

“When a person has done their time, they should be permitted to operate fully and function fully within the community,” Amiyn said. “If you're quick to take my taxes, you should be quick to give me my voice and vote.”

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

This story is supported by Reveal News from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.

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