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Hispanic Voters Are Emerging

By Maria T. Padilla

February 28, 2001
Copyright © 2001 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

The election maelstrom may be over, but for Hispanics the caldero or pot still is simmering. New groups are forming, and new strategies being planned to benefit Hispanic voters.

Hispanics don't want a repeat of last November's election, where no Central Florida county offered meaningful bilingual assistance to voters, and some Hispanics found it difficult to navigate the election process.

Attorneys from the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund out of New York have made at least two trips to Central Florida to investigate voter claims and to scrutinize documentation provided by election supervisors.

The defense fund believes that Orange County is in clear violation of the minority language provision of the Voting Rights Act, which states that help must be provided in writing and in person if at least 5 percent of the voting age population is a language minority. Orange is one of a handful of Florida counties that the federal law mandates must comply.

Orange has the most numbers of Hispanic voters in Central Florida -- more than 40,000 -- although such counties as Osceola have a significantly higher percentage.

Although the federal mandates don't cover Osceola and Seminole now, that may change as a result of redistricting efforts. Redistricting involves redrawing legislative boundaries using the Census 2000 figures.

The defense fund recently included Florida among the list of states where it will assist Hispanics in redistricting. Florida is the only state outside of the Northeast to be included.

In addition, a federal Justice Department official visited Orange recently and spoke to some local groups about voting and redistricting. Voting-rights lawyer Tim Millett said the department still is investigating voter allegations. Millett may return to Orlando again next month for more meetings.

But it would be a mistake for Central Florida Hispanics to depend on outsiders to solve their voting-rights problems. The defense fund is not based here, and doesn't know the community well. It derives its funds from the Northeast, where its loyalties lie. The Justice Department, meanwhile, has yet to file any action on behalf of any Florida voter.

That makes the grassroots work more important. Since last year's election a new Orlando group has emerged called the Hispanic American Voter League. More than 40 Hispanics of varying nationalities showed up at a recent meeting -- which is saying a lot.

Central Florida Hispanics are a difficult group to rouse, because so many Hispanics -- particularly Puerto Ricans -- moved here to retire. But the sleeping giant is beginning to stir.

The league is forging ties with the Orange County elections office. It's likely that league members will provide needed bilingual poll workers. In addition, the league continues to work on voter registration, as do other groups, including Latino Leadership of Orlando.

Last year, Hispanic voter registration jumped about 15 percent in each of Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties. That's why Orange went for Al Gore in the presidential election.

Registration efforts have focused on southeast Orlando, but the league indicated that has come at the expense of Hispanics in west Orange, where registration has been minimal.

Look for continued voter registration and redistricting efforts to pick up this year. And listen as the caldero begins to bubble.

Maria Padilla can be reached at or or 407-420-5162.

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