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La Liga de Las Americas

Puerto Ricans, swing voters in a swing state, but will they vote?

AP Hispanic Affairs Writer

(AP): They are Florida’s “other” Latino voters. After Cuban-Americans, Puerto Ricans make up the state’s largest Latino population and its most politically independent—key swingers in a swing state.

Both parties seek to claim them. Democrats point to Puerto Ricans’ traditional alignment with their party and tout their potential to counter the Republican Cuban-American vote. Republicans boast of the more business-oriented Puerto Ricans who increasingly call central Florida home.

But both parties are loath to admit one uncomfortable fact: as U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are the only Latino immigrants in
Florida who can automatically register to vote, yet more often than not, they don’t.

“We have been working for years to get people more involved, Democrats, Republicans, the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs office, and it has been disaster,'' said Kissimmee County Commissioner, Republican Carols Irizarry, one of Florida’s few Puerto Rican elected officials.

In the last decade, Florida has passed New Jersey as the No. 2 state for mainland Puerto Ricans, behind New York. The number of Puerto Ricans in Florida was estimated at 645,000 in 2005, up 160 percent since 1990, with the majority settling in the center swath of the state from Tampa to Daytona.

Exact data is difficult to come by, as most exit polls don't break down Latino voters by national origin. But pollster Sergio Bendixen, who tracks Puerto Rican voting habits in Florida, estimates roughly 40 percent of eligible Puerto Ricans in Florida voted in the 2004 election. That compares to about 47 percent of Latino citizens nationwide and 64 percent for all eligible citizens.

Bendixen recently signed on to the Hillary Clinton campaign, but other independent experts agree Puerto Ricans are significantly underrepresented.

``It's a huge potential vote, but they're not voting yet,'' said Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University.

There are many reasons for the low participation.

Part of the problem is that voter turnout on the island is above 80 percent, raising expectations for Puerto Ricans stateside.

Yet in Puerto Rico, one's job often depends on which party is in power. Elections there are also held once every four years, always on a holiday. And local parties mount carnival-like campaigns that focus on the hot topics of Puerto Rican independence and statehood.

Once they arrive in Florida, Puerto Ricans receive a voter registration card as soon as they get their driver's license, before they know much about either Republicans or Democrats. So some simply choose independent, taking them off the radar for primaries. Others dream of returning to the island and may not see the need to register to vote.

Many who come from northern states like New York have seen their political power diminish over the years and are already disenchanted with the political system, said Puerto Rican expert Angelo Falcón, who heads the National Institute for Latino Policy in New York.

Still, activists and politicos on both sides predict the Puerto Rican vote will gain in strength this year.

The nonpartisan group Democracia USA, created by People for the United Way Foundation, says that since 2004 it has registered 44,500 Latino voters across central Florida, the majority of them Puerto Ricans.

Republicans hope for a strong showing. Since Puerto Ricans threw their support behind Al Gore in 2000, Republicans have campaigned heavily in central Florida, winning nearly half the Florida Puerto Rican presidential vote in 2004.

``A lot of people talk about the Puerto Rican vote versus the Cuban vote. They would like to split the Latino vote. But we have more that unites us,'' said state Rep. Juan Zapata, a Republican who represents a mixed Latino district south of Miami.

Meanwhile, Democrats hope the bitter immigration debate has tapped into Puerto Ricans' identity as Latinos even if they aren't directly affected by immigration laws.

For Samaria Rodríguez, 28, it has. She bounced between Puerto Rico, Florida and Colorado as a teen and young adult, eventually settling in Orlando.

Even though her family was politically active on the island, Rodríguez never thought much about voting until she met her future husband, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras.

She registered to vote for the first time last week, while grocery shopping with her two young daughters.

``When you're younger, if it doesn't affect your daily living, you couldn't care less. Now it does,'' she said. ``We have families and friends that are in this situation. They should do something for these people.''

Whichever candidate they back, Puerto Ricans in Florida can count on being at the center of the campaign storm in the coming months.

``The stakes are real high because Florida is such an important state for getting the votes. ... It's one of the few still in play,'' said Falcón. ``People are targeting this community, whether or not they like it.''

Associated Press Writer Travis Reed in Orlando contributed to this report.






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