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Orlando Sentinel

Fallout May Be Inevitable As Puerto Ricans Gain Voting Clout

BY Ray Quintanilla, Sentinel Columnist

12 September 2004
Copyright © 2004 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Puerto Rico's governor was in Washington last week to tout one of her accomplishments: Her government has helped register 300,000 Hispanic voters in the United States since 2002, many of them Puerto Ricans.

In Florida alone, Gov. Sila Calderon said, almost 54,000 Puerto Ricans were registered and eligible to vote in the fall elections. But the news reminded me of the spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Remember that cheesy soundtrack in the background while the character played by Eli Wallach stands perilously on a rickety cross with a hangman's noose around his neck?

Let's start with the good: The news is certain to have an impact in Florida come November. Let's face it, 54,000 new voters are nothing to sneeze at -- especially in Florida, where the past presidential election came down to little more than 500 votes. Others quietly say this new Puerto Rican voting bloc might be enough to counter Florida's Cuban vote, a traditionally right-leaning group.

And if that happens, maybe Central Florida's burgeoning Puerto Rican community will reap the benefits traditionally flowing to South Florida's Cuban population -- things such as a strong voice in national politics. Respect. Government contracts. Access to key policy and decision-makers. Most importantly, access to the Oval Office to resolve the community's pressing problems, such as escalating high-school-dropout rates, poverty and joblessness.

The bad: There's no telling what kinds of political damage might unfold if one Hispanic voting bloc is played off another.

What kind of animosity will that create down the road? There's already tension between the two groups.

Puerto Ricans on the island say Cubans in Florida treat them like illegal immigrants when they arrive in the United States, even though they are U.S. citizens. For their part, Cubans criticize Puerto Ricans on the island and in Florida for relying too much on the government to put food on the table.

Finally, registering Puerto Ricans in the United States means those individuals no longer have a say in how the island is governed. That helps maintain the status quo here because their official link to the island is now severed. Nothing upsets Puerto Rican leaders on the island more than someone who moved to the United States calling for change "back home," even if it's warranted.

The ugly: The island helps fund the effort. One report showed the island kicked in $6 million. But whenever there's a large-scale voter drive, there's the possibility of corruption. News reports indicate two employees of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, which helped organize such an effort in Chicago in March, were being investigated in connection with up to 2,000 false voter registrations in predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhoods. Most of the fraud involved registrants' using false names and addresses.

One Cook County commissioner said he discovered four new people registered at his home, though he lives alone. An additional 17 new voters were registered at a local gas station.

OK. So Chicago is known for things like this. Right? Let's hope Puerto Rico doesn't become known for it, too.

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