Politics & Government

Politicians have courted the support of Puerto Ricans. Here’s why many won’t vote Tuesday.

In April 2018, Marisol Zenteno, right, from the League of Women Voters, helps with registering Aida Merced Lopez, who moved to Miami from Puerto Rico in April 2017, before Hurricane Maria ravaged the island.
In April 2018, Marisol Zenteno, right, from the League of Women Voters, helps with registering Aida Merced Lopez, who moved to Miami from Puerto Rico in April 2017, before Hurricane Maria ravaged the island. AP

Since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, Florida politicians have courted the vote of those who left the island.

In April, Gov. Rick Scott announced his candidacy for Senator in Orlando, where many displaced Puerto Ricans have moved. He was introduced at the rally by the territory’s lieutenant governor, Luis G. Rivera-Marin, and closed his speech in Spanish. Incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson has made multiple trips to the territory since Maria.

But an examination of recent voter registration patterns casts doubt on whether that campaigning will pay off in the Tuesday primary.

The most recent edition of the state voter file shows that between Sept. 20, 2017, when Maria struck, and July 30, the cutoff to register for the Florida primary, 3,147 new voters having Puerto Rican phone area codes have registered. Of those voters, 55 percent have registered as No Party Affiliation, while 36 percent registered as Democrats and 9 percent registered as Republican.

Under Florida’s closed primary, only those registered as a Republican or Democrat are able to vote to narrow down which candidate will represent each party in the November general election.

Those numbers may not present a full picture, said Dan Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida. Only about one in every five voters agrees to make information like area code public, he said.

It’s hard to know exactly how many Puerto Ricans have registered to vote since Maria, said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist. But he said he doesn’t think the number of new registrations has been the surge some hoped it might be.

“These things don’t happen organically,” he said. “First thing you’re going to worry about is where you’re going to live. Registering to vote is going to be pretty low on that list.”

It’s also difficult to measure the number of Puerto Ricans who moved to Florida after Maria. In the months after the hurricane, state estimates were as high as 300,000. But the actual number of people who came and chose to stay is likely between 30,000 and 40,000, said Stefan Rayer, the director of Population Program at the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. And that number is starting to stabilize, he said.

“It’s now almost a year since the hurricane, so we’ve reached the point where there still is going to be migration but the primary motivation won’t be because of the hurricanes last year,” he said.

Nancy Batista, the Florida director for Mi Familia Vota, a civic engagement organization, said the organization has been working to familiarize new voters with the platforms of the Republican and Democratic parties. But she’s not surprised most registered as NPAs.

Mi Familia Vota (My Family Votes) representatives Jose Castellanos, left, and Naloy Zapata, register voters during the Hispanic Heritage Celebration breakfast at the Kingdom of God Church in Orlando in 2016. Rhona Wise AFP/Getty Images

She said it shows they want to be fully informed before aligning with either party.

State Rep. Bob Cortes said he’s not surprised that many Puerto Ricans have registered without a party. Puerto Rico has three major political parties whose core beliefs revolve around whether the island should be a state, commonwealth or independent, he said.

Because of this, many who come to the mainland may opt for no affiliation until they’ve been in the state for a while.

“They’re starting to learn, but they still don’t understand what the parties represent,” Cortes said.

Still, the Puerto Rican voting bloc has grown substantially over the past 10 years, bringing the number in Florida on par with those in New York, Rayer said.

Cortes expects many more to register still and expects Puerto Ricans to have a strong impact in the next presidential election.

“In 2020, oh absolutely. It’s going to be a major voting bloc that can’t be ignored,” he said.

Puerto Ricans on the island can’t vote in the general election for president although they can vote in primaries.

While Schale said it’s true that Puerto Ricans do tend to turn out in higher numbers for the general elections than primaries, he said the group’s influence on local and state politics is indisputable and that party registration isn’t most important.

“I worry less about how somebody is registered to vote and more about how somebody votes,” he said.

An earlier version of this story referred to Puerto Ricans relocating to the United States. This has been amended to clarify that they relocated to the mainland United States, since they were already in a U.S. territory.