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St. Louis Activist Wants More Formerly Incarcerated People To Have The Right To Vote

St. Louis activists are working to reach out to groups that historically have been disenfranchised from the electoral process. In Missouri, 60,000 people on parole or probation are not allowed to vote. Tracy Stanton, a lead organizer for EX-incarcerated People Organizing, is working to break down that barrier with the Unlock the Vote campaign. Stanton, who also was incarcerated, spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson about how the voting process works for formerly incarcerated people.

Marissanne Lewis-Thompson: As it stands right now, how does the voting process work in Missouri if you were formerly incarcerated?

Tracy Stanton: You are able to vote once you are released from probation and parole. So, let's say you served your time in prison; you paid your debt off to society and you're released. Well, if you still have anywhere from five years, five months to 15 years and you're still on probation and parole, you do not have the right to vote. So, if you come home and you're not on probation and parole, you automatically get your voting rights restored. But there are a lot of people, over 60,000 people that are in Missouri that are still on probation and parole and are excluded out of the voting process for that reason, although they may have paid their debt to society by spending that time in prison. So that is the current process now, and that is what we're trying to definitely change with SB 542 and House Bill 1780.

Tracy Stanton is the lead organizer for EX-incarcerated People Organizing--or EXPO
Tracy Stanton
Tracy Stanton
Tracy Stanton is the lead organizer for EX-incarcerated People Organizing.

Lewis-Thompson: Also known as Unlock the Vote. Can you talk a little more about that process, because it's definitely been a journey?

Stanton: Unlock the Vote is a campaign that we are spearheading with EXPO Missouri, which is a task force or a project of MCU. MCU is Metropolitan Congregations United, and they have the Break the Pipeline campaign, and we're like an extension or project of that campaign. So, we worked in collaboration with [state Sen.] Jamilah Nasheed and also [state Rep.] Rasheen Aldridge to introduce this bill. The bill was first prefiled in, I believe, Dec. 1, 2019. And it was first read on Jan. 8 and it passed out of the committee. And March 2 then we had to do some readjustments to the bill in May, around May 15. And currently, it was basically put on hold, because COVID happened. So, it was still in the process of being looked at and reviewed, but COVID happened.

Lewis-Thompson: How does the process as it stands right now suppress the Black vote for people who think they simply can't vote?

Stanton: So when we talk about voter suppression, we have 60,000 people that are on probation and parole that can't vote. And then we also have people that have a felony conviction that do not know that they're able to vote. Because so many times, the disenfranchisement that we have faced, and I say 'We,' because I am also a returning citizen. We just feel like we're cut off from anything that we could possibly have as citizens. Because we already know that we are disenfranchised from jobs, from housing, from community assistance for the most part. So a lot of people already have in their mind, because they have a felony conviction that they can't vote.

And then we also have people like myself, because this is the first year I've ever voted, so we also have another form of voter suppression and people like me that grew up in a marginalized community. Their immediate day-to-day life does not view voting as beneficial for them, because they feel like it will not change their situation or circumstances. I think about the voting process and how I was able to vote [in the primary on Aug. 4] and how we woke up to all of these great accomplishments from people that wanted to vote and how great I felt about being a part of that. And also looking at different statuses from different social media outlets and seeing how everyone felt so elated, and had a sense of belonging and they're like, 'Our vote matters.' And they felt a sense of community. And it was a lot of people making a statement that your voice does matter, but I have 60,000 of my people that will not be able to get to feel that joy. And so that's excluding them. Not only for the electoral process where they can't be a part of the people that governs them, but just from having that feeling of sense of belonging. Or that you have accomplished something by creating power, a political power for the people that you feel like can make a change in your community. And so, it was a bittersweet moment.

Lewis-Thompson: You've mentioned your experience. You've been in their shoes before. Can you talk a little bit about that experience and how it led you to where you are right now, especially as you work to get those who were once in the system to vote?

Stanton: I experienced four different levels of trauma by the time I was 12 years old. I witnessed my brother dead. My father was on drugs. I had been molested. Those type of things. As a result, I turned to something that could alleviate my reality, which was drugs at that time, because that's what was accessible. Therapy isn't as accessible in the neighborhood as alcohol and weed and things of that nature. And I take personal responsibility for everything that I have [done] over the course of my life, but what I'm saying is, some people have options. And these are only the options that are available for a certain area of people. So it's easily accessible when you're trying to just alleviate pain to grab something that will help you not focus on your reality. So that happened over the course of years. And it always magnified and amplified and it progressed, the drug usage I speak of. And that led me to at 33, I ended up going to jail for possession of a drug, of a controlled substance.

Now, before I ended up going to prison treatment, I cycled in and out of the workhouse of all of 2016. And every time I went in and every time I got out, I had the strongest desire to change my life, but I just did not know how. I did not have the tools inside of me to make that effort on my own. I wanted to so bad. When I tell you I knew that I was so bad, but I kept on trying to do it the only way that I knew how. However, that would lead me back to the same environment in the same neighborhood. Because what I was seeking was love. And in those neighborhoods, although people say, 'Well, why are you over there?' That is my family. Those are the people that I knew that would smile when they see me. Because we all seek human connection. So no matter how from the outside looking in, as unhealthy as it may seem, to me that was my place of solace. That was the place where I belonged. So it wasn't until I was able to connect to a community organization and then connect to other community organizations that were able to nurture me from the inside out, able to attack the deep-rooted issues that had plagued me for so long and do healing, holistic-approached healing from the inside out; and therapy and things of that nature that I was able to become the woman that I am today.

So that's when the mindset first shifted. ... I've always had a drive in me. I've always had good jobs. ... I graduated high school a year early, went straight to college. Was in gifted schools all my life, but I didn't have the family structure to help nurture those parts of me growing up. So the streets were exciting. And they were an option versus school. In school I got teased. I was the dirty kid. All of those type of things. So that's not a place that you want to be. So fast forward to when I came out of institutionalized treatment. I then got connected with Center for Women in Transition, the Transformative Justice Initiative, also a basic treatment center. And these are all community-based organizations that happen on the outside. Not being incarcerated, but the outside. The community is what healed me, a collaborative effort of community. And in that time, I felt, I still feel as if I was able to make it through all of those things and experience all of those different levels of life, so that I could be able to utilize my experience, so someone either don't have to go through it or someone could realize that they can make it out.

So I am dedicated and determined for not only people to see their own value within themselves, but their value within society and for them to know, although there are strategic barriers built up for you not for you to succeed, especially having a felony conviction, especially being in recovery. The stigmas that are attached to these types of things, that it is possible. So once I was able to come through and start getting my bearings again and building my foundation, I just can't sleep until I spread the word. That 'Listen, this is important. You are important. Your life is not over.' Because for me, I actually feel like coming home in 2018 that my life just began.

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.