ORLANDO, FLORIDA — On a sweltering Sunday — the last day of early voting before Florida’s primary — a group of volunteers sat beneath a tent outside a public library in Orlando, waiting for Spanish-speaking voters to approach them with questions about the election.
Latinos make up almost a quarter of Florida’s population and roughly 18 percent of the state’s electorate, and that number is growing. After Hurricane Maria left nearly 3,000 people dead and caused over $140 billion in damage to Puerto Rico in September of 2017, roughly 18,000 U.S. citizens relocated from the island to Florida, largely concentrating themselves in the Orlando area.
Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and legally eligible to vote in Florida as soon as they arrive. While early data this year showed no meaningful change in the number of registered Latino voters in the state, advocacy groups like Mi Familia Vota set out to change that in the weeks before the August 28 primary. The group is launching voter registration drives as well as education campaigns to inform Florida’s new residents of their rights and the importance of remaining politically engaged, despite their disillusionment with government.
“Since April, we’ve registered 13,000 voters and 51 percent are Puerto Rican,” Orlyn Itriago, a lead canvasser with Mi Familia Vota, told ThinkProgress in Spanish from the tent outside the polls.
Advocates say that registering Puerto Ricans — and getting them to turn up at the polls — involves a number of hurdles. New Puerto Ricans in Florida face language barriers, confusion because political parties and issues are different in Puerto Rico, and possess a noteworthy — and not at all unjustified — distrust of government.
“They don’t really trust politics or politicians and lost a lot in the hurricane, including the credibility of politics, so they don’t want to register, they don’t want to vote,” Itriago said.
Beyond that, new residents in Florida also have other pressing issues on their minds, like the need to secure federal assistance, housing, and employment in their new state.
Still, during Tuesday’s primary, there were some signs of an uptick in Puerto Rican voters. While it’s hard to measure because Florida election officials only ask voters to identify as “Hispanic” and not by their place of origin, some reports point to a potential surge. In Osceola County, one of the counties with the largest Puerto Rican population, the Supervisor of Elections’ office reported that by 1 pm on the Tuesday of the primary, more people who checked the box identifying themselves as Hispanic had cast votes than had voted in person during the entire primary Election Day in 2012.
“If there’s a reason to, yes, [Puerto Ricans] will vote,” Esmeralda Alvire, a volunteer with Mi Familia Vota, told ThinkProgress in Spanish from outside an early voting center in Orange County. “There are a few who don’t believe in the system [because] in reality, it’s been a little traumatic.”
Puerto Rican voters will be the target of politicians, including in the state’s competitive gubernatorial race. Democrat Andrew Gillum has called himself an ally to Puerto Rican citizens, claiming he will fight for federal assistance and affordable housing for those who escaped the hurricane. Republican Ron Desantis, meanwhile, has championed President Trump’s border wall and belittled Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Puerto Rican Democrat in New York who will likely be elected to Congress in November. Both Gillum and Desantis visited Puerto Rico during the final days of the primary.
Florida also has a competitive Senate race, and Republican Gov. Rick Scott has effectively aligned himself with Puerto Rican voters. He has visited the island several times and participated in numerous events with Puerto Rican voters in Florida. Still, Democrats are hoping to tie all Republicans to President Trump, who has maligned Puerto Ricans tweeted that Puerto Ricans affected by the hurricane “want everything to be done for them, when it should be a community effort.”
The new voting bloc could also potentially sway upcoming presidential contests, given Florida’s crucial role as a swing state. Recent elections in Florida have come down to a small number of voters — Barack Obama won the state in 2012 by less than 1 percent and Donald Trump won in 2016 by 1.2 percent.
Turnout in November will likely be higher than in this past week’s primary. For some of Florida’s newest residents, a lack of familiarity with the candidates and the state’s political scene may have played a role in their decision to not participate in these early contests. Seventy-one year old Maria Diaz, for instance, who relocated from Puerto Rico to Orlando last year, told ABC News she’d be sitting out the primary.
“I don’t think I’ll vote until November … because I don’t know who the candidates are or what it is they do,” she said.
As November approaches, Itriago says she and her volunteers will continue going to supermarkets, schools, and other public locations to register and educate voters.
“It’s a job with a lot of responsibility because it is an organization that is mainly dedicated to find, mobilize, and register Latino voters, and that is complicated,” she said. “It’s important to teach them how important it is to vote in these elections happening now.”