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Hispanics Need To Vote To Be Taken Seriously

By Myriam Marquez

May 19, 2004
Copyright ©2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

Something happens to Puerto Ricans on their way to Florida. Many leave politics behind.

A majority of Central Florida's Hispanics are Puerto Ricans. They face no real barriers to voting because they are U.S. citizens. Yet they drag behind blacks and whites in the proportion of registered voters who cast ballots.

In the 2000 congressional election, for instance, Hispanics had a 60 percent turnout in Orange County, compared with a 72 percent for whites and 68 percent for blacks.

Polls show Hispanics helped Al Gore win Orange County. Imagine if a few hundred more Hispanics had voted in the disputed 2000 presidential race in which George W. Bush won Florida by only 537 votes.

In 2002, voter confusion about newly redrawn districts and no presidential race likely contributed to fewer people voting overall. Only 49.8 percent of registered Hispanic voters cast ballots in Orange County's congressional races. Turnout was 59.5 percent for whites and 51 percent for blacks.

In Puerto Rico, the turnout often rises above 80 percent. Election Day means most workplaces close and voting is energized by party identity. It's a pachanga -- a party.

Political parties on the island aren't aligned to the two major parties on the mainland. Instead, they're consumed by the U.S. commonwealth's status question. Many island Puerto Ricans arrive in Florida unclear about the differences between Democrats and Republicans. That's why so many -- about one in every five -- stay non-affiliated.

This year, several groups have begun aggressive efforts to register Hispanic voters. Fine, but registration isn't the problem. Once registered, Latinos here need to vote -- period.

Zulma Velez-Estrada, who heads the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration's registration efforts in Florida, says there are at least 14 nonpartisan groups targeting Hispanics. Velez-Estrada has registered more than 30,000 from Orlando to Tampa.

The get-out-the-vote effort will include phone calls and knocks on doors to remind people to vote. It will take volunteers to drive some voters to polling places if they don't send in absentee ballots on time.

Velez-Estrada says that Puerto Ricans make up almost 23 percent of Florida's Hispanics. Most of the state's Hispanics are immigrants, though, and fewer than half are U.S. citizens.

A new effort by a group called Mi Familia Vota, spearheaded by the Center for Immigrant Democracy, hopes to mobilize new U.S. citizens.

"There's a huge disconnect in the entire process," Nelson Betancourt, who runs the group's Central Florida operation, told me. "That's why you register 15 people and only one comes out to vote. Especially when people are working two or three jobs."

Last week, Betancourt's nonpartisan group was registering Disney-MGM Studios workers. The group plans to target hotels and other large companies to get workers voting.

There will be no chads to hang the 2004 Florida election on. No excuses. If they vote full force, Hispanics can earn the respect they tell pollsters they lack from the overall community. Their families' futures -- better jobs, health care, education and more -- depend on it.

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