The great debate is on: How many Puerto Ricans will migrate from the island to Florida over the next year? That is much on the minds of everyone from Central Florida to Puerto Rico, from everyday people to politicians.
“More are coming?” remarked a non Hispanic white stranger to a friend who was wearing a tee-shirt that stated “Florirican,” a new term, much like “Orlando Rican,” which we’ll be hearing more often in the days and weeks to come.
Volunteering at a phone bank, I spoke with about a dozen families in Puerto Rico who were interested in relocating to Florida, most deeply worried about medical care they aren’t getting for themselves or loved ones, including cancer treatment and dialysis. Some had lived in Florida before.
Others are upset about the prospects of no work for months. “I can’t earn money here,” said one man whose wife had given birth to a boy two weeks ago. A woman said, “I work as a [private] physical therapist but I have no work now.”
A young mother of three explained that the children’s father was helping to relocate the family. She didn’t seem daunted by the approximate $3,000 price tag of first and last month’s rent plus security deposit for an Central Florida apartment.
How to harness the potential electoral power of newly arrived Puerto Ricans, whose American citizenship permits them to arrive by plane today and vote tomorrow?
That’s the principal question asked today, as Florida experiences an unprecedented migration of Puerto Ricans to the state. The voter participation of Puerto Ricans lags that of other voter groups, posing a dilemma for activists, community organizations and political candidates.
Misión Boricua, a community-based non-profit, may have tapped into a potential solution: a voter-focused, non partisan and bilingual guide Misión Boricua Informa in time for the November elections and aimed at encouraging Puerto Ricans to vote. The guide helps newcomers understand the differences between voting here and there.
(Full disclosure: I was the editor of Misión Boricua Informa.)
The move indicates that the push to get Puerto Ricans to vote has taken a new turn, a new tact in Central Florida. Lower Puerto Rican voter participation has long been a conundrum in Central Florida. Why do 78 percent of Puerto Ricans vote on the island but not here? (That number, by the way, is declining. More about that below.)
It is not for lack of interest.
A recent poll of Puerto Ricans by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a progressive organization, showed that 85 percent of stateside-born Puerto Ricans indicated they planned to vote, versus 82 percent among island-born. Not a great statistical difference.
What’s more, a higher percentage of island born (87 percent) said the 2016 elections mattered a lot versus stateside-born Puerto Ricans (81 percent), according to the poll of 500 Puerto Ricans, which had a 4.4 percent margin of error. A bit more of a significant difference.
Of the Puerto Rico-born, most (56 percent) said they had voted in Puerto Rico. However, the poll revealed wide generational disparities that get to the crux of the issue.
Of those under age 40, only 38 percent had voted on the island, compared with 62 percent of those over 40.
Younger poll participants also found it easier to register and vote in Florida (74 percent) versus those over age 40 (41 percent).
Voter apathy among younger Puerto Ricans may be impacting Central Florida electoral participation since the current historical migration from Puerto Rico is made up of younger, working- and voting-age Puerto Ricans.
Conversely, older Puerto Ricans who find it difficult to register and vote in Florida also may be impacting Puerto Rican voter turnout.
Voter apathy or turnoff is a growing concern in Puerto Rico, where voter participation has steadily declined since 1984, according to the Puerto Rico Elections Commission.
Puerto Rico’s lowest voter participation rate – 48 percent – was recorded in 1900, shortly after the United States took over the island. The highest – 93 percent – occurred in 1920. In 1984, the voter participation rate was 89 percent, but it has fallen each year since, reaching 78 percent in 2012, the island’s last general election.
Puerto Rico Voter Participation
1900 – 48 percent
1920 – 93 percent
1984 – 89 percent
2012 – 78 percent
Newly arrived Puerto Ricans
It’s possible that lagging voter participation and voter registration-ballot difficulty or accessibility among the Puerto Rico-born population may exacerbate existing lower voter turnout among Central Florida Puerto Ricans as a new generation of migrants deplanes on our doorstep.
That is what Misión Boricua Informa, a voter-focused, non partisan and bilingual newspaper, aims to address.
A new poll of Puerto Ricans in Florida indicates that 84 percent plan to vote in the upcoming November elections, while 14 percent said they would probably vote.
Just 2 percent said they would not go to the polls, according to the 504 Puerto Ricans surveyed by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a progressive leaning pro-labor group, and Latino Decision.
Hillary Clinton would appear to the big winner, while in the U.S. Senate race Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy has much work to do to raise his profile among Puerto Ricans.
Clinton holds a big lead over Donald Trump, with 61 percent certain they will vote for Clinton and another 13 percent leaning toward Clinton. Meanwhile, 12 percent are certain they’ll support Trump, with an additional 5 percent indicating weak support for the Republican candidate. About 78 percent of Puerto Ricans have a negative view of Trump, according to the poll.
The poll, conducted in mid September, is unique for focusing on the Puerto Rican electorate. Such polls are hard to come by in Florida, although the Puerto Rican population has doubled since 2000, reaching 1 million.
Puerto Ricans make up about 27 percent of Florida’s Hispanic eligible voters, just below the 30 percent of Cubans who are eligible to vote, according to Pew Research Center. That translates to about 700,000 Puerto Rican voters versus 800,000 Cuban voters.
Therein lies the increasing fascination with the Puerto Rican vote. “The Puerto Rican voting bloc is set to become a major influencer in shaping the 2016 elections,” the organization stated.
Interest in the election is high among Puerto Ricans, yet they are not being courted.
About 59 percent of Puerto Ricans polled said they talk about the elections either every day or several times a week. Yet, 63 percent said they had not been approached by a community group or political party to support a candidate or register to vote.
Rubio versus Murphy
The poll brought bad news for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Patrick Murphy. Only 44 percent of Puerto Ricans polled backed Murphy, a virtual tie with incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio, who got 42 percent. Among those certain about their vote, Murphy had slight advantage, 34 percent to 30 percent for Rubio. However, the difference falls within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percent.
That is revealing finding. Puerto Ricans in Florida tend to lean Democrat, yet they are splitting the vote with Republican Rubio. Worse still, 47 percent of Puerto Ricans polled said they didn’t know enough about Murphy.
With about a month left to the November elections, half of Puerto Ricans in the poll know little about Murphy, who has been absent from the Central Florida campaign scene.
That’s an advantage for Rubio, who has name recognition. Although Puerto Ricans have issues with Rubio’s position on Puerto Rico’s debt crisis – 82 percent of Puerto Ricans polled said they favor more economic aid to Puerto Rico – 41 percent view him favorably, while 43 percent said they have a negative view of Rubio.
The race to appeal to the hearts and minds of Puerto Rican voters in the 2016 presidential elections is off and running.
For months Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has wooed Puerto Ricans in Central Florida, among whom he is not that popular (see previous stories in Orlando Latino). This week his re-election campaign launched a “Puerto Ricans for Marco” group, boasting several hundred members.
Now also comes a coalition with a get-out-the-vote effort titled, “Que Vote Mi Gente,” which roughly translates to “Vote, people!”
Que Vote Mi Gente
The ad hoc group includes New York Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi and New York City Council President Melisa Mark Viverito – all Democrats. The coalition plans a series of community events, including candidate forums, caravanas (car rallies), public service announcements and a digital campaign focused on Puerto Ricans and other Latinos.
At stake is the looming October 11 deadline for registering to vote in the November elections. The Puerto Rican vote is a lucrative one. In each of the last five years about 60,000 or so Puerto Ricans have left the island. Most have landed in Florida. That figure does not include Puerto Rican migrants from the Northeast and Midwest.
100 Percent Increase in Puerto Ricans
The upshot is, Florida’s Puerto Rican population has soared nearly 100 percent since 2000, topping 1 million today, about equal to the Cuban population. Because Puerto Ricans are born U.S. citizens, they can vote.
“Those sheer numbers … [are] a powerful indicator of how great their impact will be in November,” said Beatriz López, communications director for the Center for American Progress Action Fund and a member of the Que Vote Mi Gente coalition in a press release following a press conference. “If candidates and elected leaders aren’t paying attention to this voting bloc now, they are making a very big mistake.”
The 60,000 question is, will Puerto Ricans vote?
Apparently, neither Rubio or Que Vote Mi Gente is taking any chances. Puerto Rican voters have to be appealed to directly. A one-size-fits-all doesn’t work. That’s one reason Rubio started his group (not to mention his high-profile pushes for Zika funding and appointment to an economic task force on Puerto Rico, among other things).
Knocking on Doors
Meanwhile, Que Vote Mi Gente organizers plan to knock on more than 100,000 doors in the I-4 corridor. The coalition states that nearly 1,000 voters have already requested mail-in ballots. It plans to hold caravanas and cafecitos, an approach aimed at boosting voter enthusiasm and which Puerto Ricans like.
For instance, caravanas are popular in Osceola County, home to the greatest concentration of Puerto Ricans in all of Florida. Democrats organized a caravan last week highlighting their candidates, especially State Sen. Darren Soto, who has an excellent shot at becoming the first Puerto Rican congressman from Florida.
“Florida’s Puerto Rican community will determine who becomes the next president of the United States,” boasts José Calderón, president of the Hispanic Federation.
A little hyperbole? Maybe, maybe not.
But, rest assured, neither Democrats or Republicans want to be on the losing end of the Puerto Rican vote in the battleground state of Florida.