How Florida’s Puerto Rican Vote Is Changing Post-Hurricane Maria

ORLANDO, Florida—With only a few weeks until Election Day, 15 paid canvassers from Unidos US gathered around a conference table covered with color-coded maps of the Orlando area. The topic of discussion: the state’s heavyweight U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson and his GOP challenger, Gov. Rick Scott. In the battle for control of the chamber, Florida is emerging as one of the key races.

The result of this once-every-six-years race will determine “el futuro de la Florida,” Arianny Eduardo, organizer at the non-partisan advocacy organization, told the assembled group of mostly Latina staffers. And the results, she said, will be “bien cerquitas”—very close.

The winner will need support from the Sunshine State’s growing population of non-affiliated voters, Eduardo explained. He will also need the backing of Florida’s approximately one million Puerto Rican residents, whose ranks have swelled by some 50,000 in the year since Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Increasingly, those two groups overlap.

Thanks to a lack of familiarity with—or distaste for—the mainland’s two-party system, a growing number of Puerto Ricans are registering as No Party Affiliation. Organizers say that exact numbers are hard to come by, as many new arrivals use prepaid mobile phones or do not list their birthplace on their registration forms. But a McClatchy examination of the most recent state voter file found that of the 3,147 voters with Puerto Rican telephone area codes who registered since Maria hit, over 55 percent selected no party.

Scott has sought to make inroads with those voters, traveling to the island seven times since Maria hit and promoting his relief efforts through Spanish-language ads. Both nominees have touted endorsements from high-profile Puerto Rican political figures.

An August poll from a coalition of progressive Latino advocacy groups found Nelson leading among historically Democratic-leaning Puerto Ricans by only 7 points—a margin they found worryingly small.

Scott’s ability to “chip away at his opponents’ base” is one of his greatest political skills in a state where the last two presidential and governors’ races were decided by one point, Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale told TPM.

“For Scott to win, part of his strategy has to be taking away places where Nelson should do pretty well,” like the band of central Florida where Puerto Ricans are concentrated, Schale said. “The challenge that Nelson has is it’s an electorate that’s fairly new. Unlike places in Florida where people have voted for Bill four or five times, a lot of these people have never voted for him at all. So it’s a challenge for Nelson and an opportunity for Scott.”

Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone told TPM in an emailed statement that Scott is “committed to supporting the Puerto Rican community,” and that doing so “is not about politics.”

The Nelson campaign did not provide comment.

Drawn by the large existing Puerto Rican community and hospitality and entertainment industry jobs created by the Disney empire, those displaced by Maria have settled mostly in and around the cities of Tampa and Orlando. While Puerto Rican voters who come to central Florida via Democratic strongholds like New York are more conditioned to vote for Democrats, Schale told TPM, these newcomers have to learn the mainland system from the ground up.

Organizers role-play at the Unidos office in Orlando (Photo: Allegra Kirkland)

They also have to get registered. Unidos has registered over 35,000 new voters—including some 10,000 Puerto Ricans—this election cycle, according to the group’s senior Florida strategist, Jared Nordlund. The total goal for the cycle is 45,000 statewide.

There’s nothing glamorous about voter registration drives. Dispatched to exotic locales like big box parking lots and coin laundries, Unidos canvassers pace their terrain in the baking sun for seven-hour stretches. Success is measured one filing at a time; for Unidos, the goal is 14 new or updated registrations per day.

On a recent sweltering Wednesday, Carolina Wassmer, head organizer for the region, strategically distributed a team across the lot of the Vine Street Square mall. “All our people shop at Walmart,” the German-Colombian Orlando native, who alternates between rapid-fire English and Spanish, said.

Christian Hernandez, a 26-year-old who fled political upheaval in Venezuela, wove between parked cars, stopping an older couple to chat at length. The pair said they had moved to the area from Puerto Rico two days ago and would wait to register at the DMV when they got their licenses. (Wassmer said applications filled out at the DMV are often incomplete, lacking the country of origin and party affiliation information that makes them so helpful to organizers).

A young woman with curly blonde hair waved Hernandez away, saying she had to go pick up her kids.

Pero I appreciate what you do,” she called after him.

Months after the storm, voting remains low on the priority list for some Maria evacuees, particularly more recent arrivals focused on pressing concerns like securing full-time employment or enrolling their children in school.

Many of those who do register are unfamiliar with the intricacies of the state’s election laws. According to advocacy groups, some of those newer voters were confused and frustrated to learn that Florida is a closed-primary state that doesn’t allow unaffiliated voters to cast ballots.

Familiarizing Puerto Rican voters with the mainland’s system—and Florida’s candidates—is the main priority of groups like Alianza for Progress. Formed in April, Alianza operates out of a no-frills converted house in Kissimmee, a satellite city of Orlando made up of acres of similarly modest, one-story homes and looping highways.

Alianza’s headquarters in Kissimmee (Photo: Allegra Kirkland)

“We carry a heavy burden being citizens,” Alianza director Marcos Vilar told TPM in an interview at the group’s headquarters. “People automatically assume that when you come to the states you’re ready to come and vote.”

Alianza focuses on educating Puerto Rican voters on the nuts and bolts of mainland U.S. politics. New arrivals are “confused, they don’t understand the [two-party] system, they don’t know the candidates, there’s a language barrier,” Vilar continued.

“Voting happens every four years in Puerto Rico and here it feels like there’s a primary every other month.”

Though the organization does not endorse candidates, its July Spanish-language ad highlighted Scott’s past denials of climate change and warned Puerto Rican voters not to let the governor “fool” them into thinking he’s their ally. Nelson’s record as a “champion” of the community has been overshadowed by Scott’s bully pulpit in the state and “strategic” campaigning in Puerto Rican neighborhoods, Vilar told TPM.

Still, political scientists note that Scott’s generally favorable approval rating and high name recognition among Florida’s Puerto Ricans won’t automatically translate into votes.

Eduardo Gamarra, Director of the Latino Public Opinion Forum at Florida International University, told TPM that some publications misconstrued a survey of those voters he released in June. Some 57 percent of respondents said they were more likely to vote for Democrats compared to just 7 percent for Republicans, but an overwhelming majority said they viewed Scott positively—including a whopping 82 percent of those who arrived in 2017 and 2018.

“People interpreted the favorable rating of Scott as an intention to vote for him,” Gamarra said. “They may like him, they may think he’s a nice guy but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to vote for him.”

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