Puerto Rican voters underwhelm at polls
Early Fla. data indicate turnout by those born in U.S. territory lagged other Hispanic groups
Ahead of the election, national and local Puerto Rican groups hosted registration drives, knocked on doors, launched ads and coordinated rallies throughout the state of Florida — all deas signed to get most of Florida’s 208,000 registered Puerto Ricanborn voters to the polls.
But early numbers show that Puerto Ricans actually lagged other Hispanic groups in voting, and some groups are pointing to mainland politicians’ lack of investment in and understanding of Florida’s Puerto Rican community a factor.
“You can’t just rely on community groups. … the [Democratic] Party can’t just sit back and let the groups do it,” said Federico De Jesús, a Democratic consultant who was Hispanic communications director for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008.
The full picture of Puerto Rican turnout in the 2018 midterms won’t be known until more data are available. But Daniel Smith, a University of Florida professor who chairs the Department of Political Science, said the early figures show Puerto Rican turnout trailed other Hispanic groups.
“I was actually quite shocked at how low the turnout was before Election Day,” said Smith, who tracked voter registration data by place of birth through December 2017.
Analyzing both absentee and in-person early voters, Smith said about 44 percent of the 350,000 Cuban-born voters registered in Florida voted early. Among registered Haitian-born voters, 45 percent cast an early ballot, according to Smith’s data.
Only about 27 percent of Puerto Rican voters cast ballots early, Smith said.
Overall, 30.4 percent of the 2.3 million Hispanics registered to vote in Florida cast early or absentee ballots, according to Smith’s data. By comparison, 40.4 percent
of the 8.9 million white voters and 38.3 percent of the 1.9 million African American voters turned out before Election Day.
Smith said reliable Election Day turnout data are not yet available. But for Hispanics to have made up the difference they would have had to “turn out en masse” on Nov. 6, and “there’s no way that happened,” he said.
National and local groups, including For Our Future Florida, Boricua Vota, Hispanic Federation, UnidosUS and the Respeta Mi Gente coalition, had all launched efforts to target Boricuas, hoping the influx of those displaced from the island by Maria could swing a close election.
The Sunday before Election Day, Irma Mercado stood with her husband, Antonio, in front of a stage at Kissimmee’s 65th Infantry Veterans Park, where progressive groups led a final rally in Central Florida for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum.
The Mercados, both 70, are originally from Puerto Rico but have lived in Central Florida for about 30 years. They are lifelong Democrats and had cast their early votes for Gillum and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
“I think [Gov. Rick Scott Nelson’s opponent] did more than what others have done for Puerto Rico … but he helps [President Donald] Trump too much, so we can’t give him our vote,” Irma Mercado said. “I lost my sister in Puerto Rico. She was very sick and with everything that happened with the hurricane [Maria], she couldn’t survive.”
Florida has the largest population of Puerto Ricans outside the island, with about 1.2 million Boricuas living in the state — and growing. According to the Pew Research Center, Puerto Ricans make up 31 percent of Hispanics in Florida, placing them on par with Cuban-Americans, who historically have tended to vote for conservative politicians.
The population had already been growing steadily in the past several years as the U.S. territory suffers from crippling debt, with its finances overseen by a federally-appointed board. Then, last year’s Hurricane Maria devastated the island, forcing an estimated 50,000 to resettle in Florida.
About 12,000 Puerto Ricans in Florida registered to vote in the months after Hurricane Maria, according to Department of State data, but the increase was lower than in the months leading up to the 2016 general election.
After the election, members of the Latino outreach coalition Respeta Mi Gente defended their get-out-thevote efforts, arguing the increase in registered voters was itself a success.
“This is a continuous program … we can build power and influence because we do have the numbers,” said Betsy Franceschini, Central Florida director of Hispanic Federation.
Melissa Mark-Viverito of Latino Victory Fund said even if a spike in turnout wasn’t reflected in this year’s election, it will develop over time if organizations keep investing in Florida’s Puerto Rican community.
“From here, we want to advocate that more needs to be done, not less,” MarkViverito said.
The work of progressive groups did not impress Jorge Bonilla, a Puerto Rican talk-show host in Central Florida and former Republican congressional candidate, who said focusing on the recovery after Maria to target Puerto Ricans was a misguided approach.
“With the Cuban exile community, there was one uniting factor that for decades galvanized the communities,” said Bonilla, referring to the opposition among expatriates to longtime Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. “People try to make the hurricane into a unifying issue and I don’t think that worked.”
Bonilla argued outreach groups’ approach to courting Puerto Ricans may have actually helped Republicans in the midterms.
“Boricua voters for all the talk are independent, independent-minded in their own criteria,” he said. “People are going to have to spend time and money to understand the psyche of Puerto Ricans here in Florida, which is very different from the community on the island and different from the community in New York.”
About 45 percent of Puerto Ricans who voted early in-person were registered as Democrats, 17 percent as Republicans, and 37 percent were not affiliated with a party.
Dr. Luis Martinez-Fernandez, political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said that as the Puerto Rican population in Florida is expected to grow, voter registration efforts will be fruitful as long as they are consistent.
“Puerto Ricans who have just moved are facing many issues. Issues that have to do with health, their children’s education and crime. Here they also face issues of affordable housing that’s not as accessible and low wages,” Martinez-Fernandez said.
Smith, the UF professor, added that lagging Boricua turnout could be attributed to disengagement in mainland politics, compared with other Latinos who go through the process of becoming citizens. “They’re proud to be going through that arduous process of naturalizing,” he said.
The Mercados said they voted for Democrats, in part, because they thought Republican leaders did not do enough to advocate for the island’s needs.
“If we don’t vote, we won’t get the things we need,” said Antonio Mercado. “We’re more trusting of what [Democrats] are promising. … We are American citizens and the way [the federal government] treated other states was not the way they treated us. So we try to vote to improve our situation.”