Puerto Ri­can vot­ers un­der­whelm at polls

Early Fla. data in­di­cate turnout by those born in U.S. ter­ri­tory lagged other His­panic groups

Orlando Sentinel (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Bianca Padró Oca­sio and Ade­laide Chen Or­lando Sen­tinel

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.”

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