Brandon Reid remembers watching Barack Obama win the presidential election from his living room couch in 2008.
Most of his friends had gone to the polls that day to vote in what became a historic election. But Reid, who was in and out of prison because of drugs, couldn’t vote. He was on criminal supervision at the time. He missed the 2012 presidential election for the same reason.
“If you don’t have the right to vote, of course, you are going to know about it, right? You see it on the news. It’s voting day. You want to be a part of it,” Reid said.
A lot of people are in the same position that Reid used to be. When Missouri holds its presidential primaries next month, more than 63,000 residents will be barred from participating because they’ve been convicted of a felony and are serving a sentence on probation and parole.
Some state lawmakers are hoping to lift the voting ban. Sen. Jamilah Nasheed and Rep. Rasheen Aldridge of St. Louis as well as Rep. Judy Morgan, of Kansas City, have all sponsored separate legislation to allow people on criminal supervision to vote.
“When you make a bad decision, you should be punished, but should voting be the way you’re punished?” Aldridge said. “They did do something wrong in the past and they were sent away. And now that their time is up, we shouldn’t be putting this black mark on them.”
Aldridge and others argue that people on probation and parole pay taxes and should have a say in deciding who their elected officials are as a result.
A 2018 report from the Department of Corrections shows around 60% of people on probation and parole have a job. Most others are required to be in school or looking for a job as a condition of their supervision, said Jeanie Thies, a professor at Lindenwood University who used to work with parolees in Missouri.
People typically spend a little over two years on probation or parole in Missouri. At least two-thirds of them were convicted of a nonviolent crime or drunk driving, according to the 2018 corrections report. With more states legalizing marijuana, there are questions being raised about whether felony convictions related to that drug should result in a loss of voting rights at all, Thies said.
But Missouri is not alone in restricting people convicted of felonies from voting. Around 6.1 million people couldn’t vote because of felony convictions nationally in 2016, according to the Sentencing Project, an advocacy organization that pushes for voting rights to be restored.
Policies that states have enacted with regard to felonies and voting vary widely. Iowa has the most restrictive policy — people convicted of felonies permanently lose their right to vote. Missouri is one of 17 states that restrict voting for people convicted of felonies while they are in prison and on probation or parole but not after that period.
Illinois is more lenient, according to the Sentencing Project. It allows people to vote while they are on probation and parole — similar to the policy that Nasheed, Aldridge and Morgan are pushing for in Missouri.
Bills have been introduced in Missouri in recent years to restore voting rights to people on probation and parole, but they haven’t gotten any traction.
The felon voting rights bills this year are all sponsored by Democrats, which can be a tough sell in the Republican-controlled Legislature. But Nasheed said she’s trying to gain support among Republicans for her bill. She pointed to a couple of GOP-dominated states, Louisiana and Florida, that have recently restored voting rights to ex-offenders.
St. Louis and St. Louis County have more than 10,000 people serving on probation and parole combined, but there are people who have lost their voting rights in every county in Missouri. In fact, if Nasheed’s legislation became law, only one-fifth of people who get their voting rights restored would live in the Democratic strongholds of St. Louis and Kansas City. Many would come from rural parts of the state.
“This is straight up a bipartisan movement that needs to happen,” Nasheed said. “This will not just impact Democrat votes. This will impact Republican votes as well.”
In recent years, there have been a few Republican legislators who have been willing to back the restoration of voting rights to people convicted of felonies. State Reps. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, and Jim Neely, R-Cameron, co-sponsored legislation to allow people on probation and parole to vote last year. Former Sen. Robert Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, sponsored his own version of Nasheed’s bill in 2016.
Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, is opposed to the concept because people on probation and parole are still at risk of going to prison if they violate their supervision. Luetkemyer is the head of the Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence committee that will oversee any bill about felons and voting rights that comes through the Senate.
“I think it’s appropriate that people should not during that probationary period have a role in shaping the law that they violated,” he said.