Voter-Registration Drives In Fla. Focus On Puerto Ricans

Oct 6, 2016
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In the key electoral state of Florida, campaign workers are registering as many voters as possible before next week's deadline. And there's a special push to register more than 1 million Puerto Ricans, the state's fastest growing group. Many of these U.S. citizens are new to the mainland. And it will be their first time voting in a presidential race. For a look at how campaigns are mobilizing them, we turn to Renata Sago from member station WMFE.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Tengo libertad, tengo...

RENATA SAGO, BYLINE: Arms wave and feet rock at Iglesia de Dios, a Puerto Rican Pentecostal Church in Orlando. Everyone chants Tengo Libertad, I am free. Pastor Gary Berrios sings along at a table in the back covered with voter registration forms.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Tengo libertad...

GARY BERRIOS: Every Sunday, I am in a different church. Some churches are, you know, a hundred people. Some others are, like, a thousand.

SAGO: Like many of Florida's Puerto Ricans, Berrios migrated from the island. He's part of the Republican Party's faith team and talks to unregistered and undecided Puerto Ricans at evangelical churches across the state. They are people, he says, that care deeply about jobs and education and are disenchanted with big government.

BERRIOS: The pastors, they give me the mic for about five minutes, talking Spanish. You know, I'm up front. I say don't vote as a Latino. Vote as a conservative. Take your values with you on the day of election and vote according to those values.

SAGO: An hour's drive away at a bus terminal in a shopping plaza, Nina Valedon, who's also Puerto Rican, believes those same values will sway the new arrivals to vote Democrat.

NINA VALEDON: And here you can choose a party if you want to.

SAGO: Every day she's out in Osceola County with the Hillary Clinton campaign registering people to vote.

VALEDON: We go to barber shops. We go to parking lots. We go to small businesses. We knock on doors, basically any place in which we think we can find people that needs to get into the process.

SAGO: Osceola County is home to the largest number of Puerto Ricans who, like Valedon, have been stateside less than a year.

VALEDON: You will see sometimes, you know, the air mattresses, the suitcases. You will register them after they've worked one or two jobs. They will be tired, but they will tell you that they are doing all of this because they feel that here they have a better shot.

SAGO: She says government social services that Democrats support can help newly-arrived Puerto Ricans and that they should be natural political allies. Pedro Pierluisi is the island's resident commissioner in Congress. He says Puerto Ricans are very active in politics on the island. But when they move to the mainland, that changes. Many don't register with a political party.

PEDRO PIERLUISI: In the States, it's all about being conservative or liberal or moderate in your views regarding what the government should or should not do. In Puerto Rico, it's not like that.

SAGO: Pierluisi says taking part in mainland politics could help out the island, which has been in a fiscal crisis.

PIERLUISI: You want candidates from both main parties, as well as independent candidates, making commitments regarding Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in Florida.

SAGO: A recent study by the Hispanic Federation suggests that Puerto Ricans will soon outnumber Cubans and become Florida's largest Latino group. That means the push to get them registered to vote could have implications well past this election year. For NPR News, I'm Renata Sago in Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.