Race to Capture Puerto Rican Vote in Florida Has Begun

The Puerto Rican vote will be highly sought after in the 2018 elections but for now newly arrived evacuees are weary and wary of politics. /Maria Padilla

The race to capture the Puerto Rican vote has begun. Last week the Republican Party of Orange County held a Lincoln Day Dinner honoring and welcoming Puerto Rican evacuees to the Orlando area.

It was a warning shot indicating the state GOP aims to fight for and win over Puerto Rican voters. The Democratic Party has not uttered much despite the wave of Democrat-leaning Puerto Ricans arriving daily in Florida – over 60 percent of Puerto Rican voters in Florida cast ballots for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Very likely, however, it is salivating over the prospect of turning purple Florida permanently blue.

Over 200,000 Puerto Ricans have arrived in Florida from Puerto Rico since the start of the hurricane evacuations in October, according to the office of Gov. Rick Scott. As American citizens, each Puerto Rican over the age of 18 is eligible to vote in Florida.

Promise and Threat

Which means that right this minute Puerto Ricans hold in their hands the promise – and threat – of changing Florida politics forever. Despite a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal this week highlighting the state’s influx of Venezuelans whose country also is in deep crisis, it is Puerto Ricans who number over 1 million in Florida and who may exercise their political clout first. Venezuelans must become permanent residents then U.S. citizens, a years-long process.

Still, political activism among Puerto Rican evacuees is a touchy subject. They are arriving in Florida world weary and politically wary. They have left everything behind on the disaster-stricken island to seek a sense of normalcy here. They are deeply disappointed in Puerto Rico’s governing and political class, whose monumental ineptness is on display each day for all to see. The unpreparedness of Puerto Rico’s elected officials left the island’s population to the whims of the hurricane winds, forcing tens of thousands to abandon the island.

Evacuees are not thinking about jumping into the political fray in Florida – at least not yet.

Month          Registered Hispanics         Female           Male 

August                190, 456                                      101,738          84,391

September         191,102                                       102,078          84,701

October              192,885                                       103,085          85,465

November          194,255                                       103,834         86,084

CHANGE        +3,799                               +2,096       +1,693

Source: Orange County Supervisor of Elections

Who’s Staying?

Most newly arrived Puerto Ricans do not have permanent addresses or valid Florida ID, required to register to vote. Only about 9,200 Puerto Rico evacuees have sought Florida drivers licenses, IDs or motor vehicle services throughout the state, according to figures from Gov. Scott’s office. Obtaining a state ID or license would be an indication of an intention to stay.

Still,  the number of Hispanic registered voters in Orange County has jumped by 3,800 since August, reports the Orange County Supervisor of Elections. That doesn’t necessarily mean the newly registered voters are Puerto Rican. It means they are Hispanic. The rest is extrapolation.

And by the way, new registered voters are checking off “no party affiliation,” continuing a trend away from established political parties.

Embracing Evacuees

In an interview in Puerto Rico’s El Nuevo Día newspaper, Republican State Rep. Bob Cortés, one of a handful of state elected officials who are Puerto Rican, said he encouraged Gov. Scott to embrace Puerto Rican evacuees. Gov. Scott, expected to run for U.S. Senate in 2018, did just that, opening Hurricane María relief centers, waiving certain education requirements for Puerto Rican K-12 students and lifting out-of-state tuition at 40 state universities for Puerto Rican students, among other moves.

All are short-term measures to be sure, but ones that demonstrate that state Republicans are angling hard for the Puerto Rican vote.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

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