“This is a chance to have a conversation with formerly incarcerated people and we have three? Three candidates show up? I’m sorry. That is unacceptable in a nation where (statistics show) tens of thousands of stories of personal destruction that have been caused at the hands of the criminal justice system,” said U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) Oct. 28 at Justice Votes 2020, a presidential candidate town hall dedicated solely to criminal justice topics, moderated by people with experience in the system, held at the Eastern State Penitentiary Museum in Philadelphia, a former prison.
The event was attended by only three of the 18 major Democratic presidential candidates: Booker, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and philanthropist Tom Steyer.
For those other candidates who didn’t show up at the event, it’s more than a missed opportunity to talk. It was a missed opportunity for the votes needed to claim the presidency.
It’s axiomatic that the next president needs to win the state of Florida and its 29 electoral votes, the most of the traditional swing states: The winner in the Sunshine State has become president in every election since 1996.
And that crucial state has 1.4 million new voters, people with criminal records whose rights were restored in November 2018 after Amendment 4 was passed.
This voting bloc seemed to lose some of its power when the state legislature passed a law earlier this year that prevents anyone whose rights were restored from voting if they haven’t paid all outstanding fines and fees. It looked like the poll tax had been resurrected.
Even Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who signed the bill, knew that the legislature might have gone too far; he’s asked the Florida Supreme Court for an advisory opinion on how to proceed on Amendment 4.
At least for a while, the Florida Supreme Court’s advisory opinion can wait. In October, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction that stays the new law on fines and fees, preventing the state of Florida from requiring payment from those restored voters who are too poor to afford it. Because courts grant injunctions only to parties who are likely to prevail at trial on the merits of the case, it’s likely - but not guaranteed - that the law will not be in effect come November 2020. No one will know for sure until after trial, which is scheduled for April.
But even if this veritable poll tax is law in 2020, Florida is still in play for either party. A study unveiled in August found that more than 82% of Florida’s restored voters are still running a tab for restitution or other costs.
If the fee and fine restriction remains in place, that still leaves 280,000 eligible voters with criminal records for the 2020 election. Trump won the Sunshine State by approximately 112,911 votes in 2016.
A non-appearance at Oct. 28’s town hall doesn’t mean that the absent candidates don’t care about this issue. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) stands on a rather progressive reform platform and sent regrets because he had confirmed appearances elsewhere that day. It’s still early in the campaign, and missing one event doesn’t have to be fatal in itself.
But what’s downright dangerous is not realizing that courting a formerly disenfranchised constituency has become an indispensable campaign strategy. Evading a nationwide dialogue with those people is not only socially and politically irresponsible, it will trip up any 2020 candidate.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.