While politicians in Florida court Puerto Ricans who fled to the Sunshine State in the wake of Hurricane Maria last year, experts who spoke with CNN say it’s uncertain what impact they will have on the midterm elections.
Thousands of Puerto Ricans have resettled in Florida since Hurricane Maria ravaged the island last September, although the exact number is difficult to determine. Hispanic voter registration has increased by more than 100,000 voters since the 2016 election, although it is unclear how many of those are Puerto Ricans. The Florida Division of Elections told CNN it does not have specific statistics on Puerto Rican voters.
What is less clear is if and how Puerto Ricans who have resettled in Florida will vote in Florida’s primary election on Tuesday and then in the general election in November.
Experts who spoke with CNN laid out several obstacles for Puerto Ricans to get involved in politics in the continental US.
Nancy Batista, the Florida state director of Mi Familia Vota, a civic engagement organization focused on issues affecting the Latino community, said some have been hesitant to register to vote because of distrust of the political system in Puerto Rico.
She and Esteban Garces, the organization’s national field director, told CNN that canvassers have encountered confusion about the party system – the political parties on the island are different from those in the continental United States – and a lack of familiarity with federal elections and ballot measures.
Then there are the bigger obstacles of resettlement, such as housing and job insecurity.
“One of the main things is that if you don’t have an apartment, if you don’t have a job, that can be a challenge. Because in their minds, voting is not really the main priority,” Peter Jochua Cora-Santiago, co-vice president of Mision Boricua, told CNN.
Nonetheless, Garces said his organization has seen better-than-expected voter registration numbers.
“We are nearly seeing presidential election year numbers of Latinos registered,” he told CNN. Of the 22,600 people Mi Familia Vota said it has registered this season, more than 11,500 are of Puerto Rican descent.
“We would not be able to hit these numbers in a midterm year without the influx of Puerto Ricans to Central Florida,” Garces said.
Both parties recognize the latent potential of a new voting bloc, according to Susan MacManus, a distinguished professor emerita in political science at the University of South Florida and an expert in Florida politics.
“Because both parties are on the decline in terms of percentage of voters they now have, that large group of new voters is very, very appealing, both in the short term and the long term,” she told CNN.
“There’s been a lot of, I think, overestimations, but in a state where every statewide election is determined by about 1% a margin of victory, you can still understand why a bloc of voters, if they voted cohesively – and that’s a big if – could swing the election in one way or another,” she said.
In the US Senate race particularly, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Rick Scott have both made outreach to Puerto Ricans in Florida a priority.
They’ve both made trips to the island – Scott has made seven post-Maria in his capacity as governor, according to his office, and Nelson has visited Puerto Rico three times since the hurricane, his office said.
Then there are endorsements. Scott has the endorsement of Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting representative in Congress, who is a Republican. Former Puerto Rico Govs. Alejandro García Padilla and Pedro Rossello, the father of current Gov. Ricardo Rossello, and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz have endorsed Nelson.
Both campaigns spotlighted their candidate’s engagement with the Puerto Rican community in Florida – hosting roundtables, meetings with local leaders, attendance at festivals and parades, and communications in English and Spanish.
For those working on the ground with potential voters, this outreach makes perfect sense.
“It’s in any statewide candidate running for office’s best interest to reach out to the Puerto Rican community and to be present in Puerto Rico,” Garces said.
He told CNN that his organization has found that Puerto Ricans who resettle in Florida maintain an affinity to the island “that really drives a lot of their motivation when it comes to politics.”
“Even though they live here, even though they’re a ‘Floridian,’ they vote here, they’re residents of this place, their heart is in Puerto Rico,” he explained.
Mi Familia Vota is focusing part of its efforts in voter education, Garces said.
“These voters will have a lot of power in this upcoming primary and in the general election, and part of our job is to educate them or inform them on what that means, that power, that vote, for Puerto Rico and on those key issues they care about: education, housing (and) good jobs,” he told CNN.
Cora-Santiago said Mision Boricua has also focused its efforts on the power of the polls. The nonpartisan nonprofit, which focuses on fostering civic engagement in the Puerto Rican diaspora, holds voter education lectures to which candidates are invited.
“(The Puerto Rican voters) understand the power that we hold here, specifically in central Florida. When you connect the economic issue in Puerto Rico to their vote here, telling them that they can have a voice for what’s going on in Puerto Rico, there seems to be more of a willingness to participate,” he told CNN.
The newly settled residents ultimately might not turn the tide of the 2018 elections, MacManus told CNN. “There are a number of people who think that their real impact will be in the 2020 presidential as opposed to 2018 midterms,” she said. “My prediction is that.”