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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

A Voting Bloc Just Waiting To Happen

By Deborah Ramirez

January 26, 2002
Copyright © 2002
South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

On a breezy January morning, Puerto Rico's governor, Sila Calderón, points to charts and maps in her office at La Fortaleza, the 16th century fortresslike mansion built to withstand pirate attacks.

In what was once a war room near the San Juan harbor, Calderón is planning a different type of campaign. She is launching a voter registration drive among Puerto Ricans in the mainland United States. This includes Florida, the state with the fastest-growing Puerto Rican population.

Why Calderón should care whether stateside Puerto Ricans, who can't vote for her, vote for anyone else has two answers. First, the governor seems genuinely concerned about empowering U.S. Puerto Rican communities through the ballot box. And she's looked at the 2000 census. It shows, for the first time, that nearly as many Puerto Ricans live in the United States (3.4 million) as in Puerto Rico (3.9 million).

These census numbers create the potential for a Puerto Rican voting bloc. It is one that would have powers that Puerto Rico, an unincorporated U.S. territory lacks: electing the president and members of Congress. This could help Puerto Rico with issues like ending Navy bombing practices in Vieques or getting Congress to approve a new industrial tax incentive for the island.

The potential is even greater in Florida, the state that swung the 2000 presidential elections. Now Republicans and Democrats are talking about the state's next biggest swing group: Puerto Ricans.

What has made them potentially pivotal is that Puerto Ricans, who are traditionally Democrats, voted in large numbers for Jeb Bush, a Republican, in the 1998 governor's race. Two years later, they switched back to support Al Gore, a Democrat, for president. Close to a half-million Puerto Ricans live in the Sunshine State, concentrated in Central and South Florida, and politicians from both parties are hot for their vote.

But there's a bubble-burster to this electoral Cinderella story. It's a self-imposed one. About half of all eligible Puerto Rican voters in the United States aren't registered, according to Puerto Rican government estimates. As U.S. citizens,

Puerto Ricans are eligible to vote as soon as they arrive, but many never bother to sign up.

It's an old contradiction that's been hard to shake. The voting rate in Puerto Rico is historically high, about 84 percent, and the voting rate among Puerto Ricans in the states for too long has been dismally low.

What are the reasons for this?

They span cultural ones -- election campaigns in Puerto Rico are like endless block parties. After the vote comes the hangover.

There are practical reasons, as well: the island has only one election every four years. Everyone from dogcatcher to governor is elected that day, and it's a holiday to boot. In contrast, the myriad U.S. elections are confusing to many Puerto Rican newcomers.

There's also ideology. The island's political life revolves around the status question.

The electorate is about evenly divided between those who want to see Puerto Rico become a state and those who want it to remain a U.S. commonwealth, with a small minority favoring independence. And even that equation gets complicated, because many independence supporters vote for the pro-commonwealth party -- the one Calderón belongs to -- to counter the statehood movement.

Then there's the "loan" factor, coined by Manuel Benítez, director of the Puerto Rico Governor's Office in South Florida. It's the feeling of being here "on loan" and wanting to go home when the conditions are right.

It's a human feeling. I grew up in Puerto Rico and I would like to retire to a little house near the beach with a view of pounding waves, rolling green hills and coconut vendors.

But as long as I'm here, for the short term or the long haul, I have a responsibility to be a good neighbor and citizen, and this includes voting.

Low voter turnout isn't a problem exclusive to Puerto Ricans. Many other Americans never bother to exercise this democratic right. But absence in the voting booth is the surest way to be ignored, even for potential swing voters.

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