Puerto Rican voter surge in Florida is no surprise

In the race to the White House, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton appeared to take an early lead in Florida, thanks in part to a substantial early voter turnout in areas with large Latino and Caribbean-American populations.

Florida, a key battleground state for several of the last election cycles, has been known for its politically active Cuban-American population, but it’s Puerto Rican voters who might be making an early impact. The Sunshine State is now home to more than a million Puerto Ricans. According to Univision, most — especially new arrivals from the island — are registering to vote as Democrats. Coming from an island with one of the highest voter turnouts in the world, Florida’s growing Puerto Rican population could become a political force rivaling Cuban Americans.

According to the Pew Research Center, Puerto Rico’s population dropped 9 percent to 3.5 million in 2015, particularly accelerating after 2010. The island’s debt crisis, which has led to a federal takeover of its finances, has sent some Puerto Rican residents seeking economic reprieve on the mainland, especially Central Florida. But the Puerto Rican influence in the state isn’t exactly new. Julio Ricardo Varela, political editor of the Futuro Media Group and founder of Latino Rebels, said few have paid attention to Puerto Ricans’ growing political clout, but the impact could easily have been predicted.

“Is it a historic moment, yes. But it shouldn’t be a surprise. The signs were there over a decade ago,” Varela said. “What’s new is that Boricuas (Puerto Ricans) — both those moving from the island and those who’ve already been here — are waking up and realizing the only way we’re going to be taken seriously is if we begin to have the political clout. That’s why we’re seeing it reflected in early returns.”

The economic downturn on the island posed significant implications for both Florida’s primaries and the general election. In the Orlando area, the population growth is the driving force behind organizations like Misión Boricua (Puerto Rican Mission) working to get new Puerto Rican residents registered to vote.

“When the 2010 census was done, the growth in population that allowed Florida two more electoral points was mostly due to the growth in the Puerto Rican population in Central Florida, but our government at every level is not reflecting our communities,” said Zoraida Rios-Andino, Misión Boricua’s president. “So we’re working to change that. I always say if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

Rios-Andino volunteers as the Democratic captain of her local voting precinct in Central Florida and estimates more than half of its constituents have already voted. She attributes the early turnout to community efforts such as Misión Boricua replicating a traditional Puerto Rican caravan where cars line up, play music and go around the neighborhood passing out fliers and signs to motivate people about voting.

“We did a bilingual newspaper with information about voting and the difference between voting here and in Puerto Rico,” she said. “Most people are very confused about voting. But they’ve all mentioned they’re looking at what’s going on with the country right now.”

But despite what some have reported, Varela said it’s not just a “sudden migration of Puerto Ricans from the island” that is contributing to Florida’s galvanized Puerto Rican voters. Large Puerto Rican diasporas are already present in Democratic strongholds like Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago, consisting of those who were born in the continental U.S. and those who were born on the island but moved over the decades. Varela said many of these Puerto Ricans also are moving, adding to a battleground state like Florida slowly becoming reliably blue.

Orlando in particular has maintained a large population of Puerto Ricans throughout its history, although recent migrants from the island have it on the brink of surpassing New York City as the largest diaspora. Varela said that in the past, discrimination against Latinos in the area and apathy within the Puerto Rican community have meant little to no representation in state and local governments.

But Rios-Andino said recent events, including the shooting at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub in June, might be motivating Central Florida’s Puerto Rican community to become more politically active.

“With 23 out of the 49 victims — and most of the injured — being Puerto Rican, the shooting at Pulse brought us closer together as a community,” said Rios-Andino. “So we’re listening more than ever to the issues that will affect us.”

Both Varela and Rios-Andino said that Puerto Rico’s unique status as a U.S. territory often makes Puerto Ricans an outlier when it comes to Latino outreach among presidential candidates. Instead, Latino initiatives usually center on immigration, which doesn’t affect Puerto Ricans since they are American citizens by birth. Although eligible to vote in primary races, Puerto Ricans can only vote for president in the general election after moving to the mainland.

And Puerto Ricans are moving in droves, as many as 7,000 are leaving the island each month, according to Pew. In Florida, Puerto Ricans will soon surpass Cubans as the largest Latino population in the state. Rios-Andino said that makes it all the more important for Puerto Ricans to be represented in political leadership at the local, state and federal level.

“Cuban-Americans typically vote Republican and tend to be more conservative than Puerto Ricans,” she said. “So it’s not just a matter of more Latinos is high positions, but also Latinos who reflect Puerto Ricans’ political leanings as well.”

“There’s lots of lessons to be learned from the Cuban community in South Florida that can be applied in Central Florida by Puerto Ricans in the future,” Julio Varela said. “But my fear is that discrimination and the overall ignorance of continental Americans about Puerto Rico will have political pundits, news media and everyone else continuing to treats us as some foreign other rather than equal contributors to this society.”

Varela said it will also take unification to make Puerto Rico’s voting power a permanent fixture in American politics. There’s a long-standing tension between Puerto Ricans on the island and the mainland that is exacerbated by the complexities of race, identity and language.

“Essentially our community has to do a better job within the diaspora and on the island of saying ‘let’s put everything aside and put Puerto Ricans first,'” he said.

With Puerto Rico’s recession lingering, the trend of mainland migration will likely continue, potentially influencing more election cycles and swing states in the coming years. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the island’s population will decrease to 2.98 million by 2050, its lowest level since 1980. For Rios-Andino, it makes community outreach to potential voters on the mainland critical long after the country elects the next president on Tuesday.

“We’ve got the voting power, yes. But now the next stage begins,” she said. “What are you going to do to prove that you earned our vote? Because we don’t want it to be taken for granted. We’re going to hold you accountable.”