Outreach groups: Puerto Ricans in Central Florida registered to vote in 'historical' numbers

Aggressive efforts in the past year to register potential Puerto Rican voters in Central Florida has yielded an estimated 40,000 newly registered Boricuas this year, according to Hispanic outreach groups that touted the figure as unusually high for midterm-election year.

“It’s surprising to me,” said director Betsy Franceshini of Hispanic Federation in Florida. “I’ve been here for over 30 years and… it’s the first time I’m seeing this enthusiasm.”

Frustrated by media reports they argue don’t paint a full picture, the Latino voter outreach groups — including Respeta Mi Gente, Mi Familia Vota and Hispanic Federation — held a call with members of the media Wednesday to make the case for a surge of Puerto Ricans registering to vote.

“We want to push back against the reports that work is not getting done, that people are not registering,” said Frederick Vélez, an organizer with the non-partisan coalition Respeta Mi Gente. “We can say that the job is being done, that we are registering voters, and we’re having those conversations at the doors.”

Even before the historic Hurricane Maria drove an estimated tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans to settle in Florida, about 1.2 million Puerto Ricans lived in the state. Vélez said that of about 77,000 new Central Florida voters the groups have registered in the past year, about 90 percent of them are Hispanic and close to 50 percent of them are self-identified Puerto Ricans.

The coalition said they have knocked on over 100,000 doors throughout Orange, Osceola, Polk, Seminole, Hillsborough and Lake counties. Because voters can choose to refrain from identifying as Puerto Rican, “it has been really hard to pin down an exact number,” Vélez said.

Franceschini explained that for many Puerto Ricans the groups have spoken with view Florida’s congressional and gubernatorial races as an opportunity to elect representatives that will advocate for the island. Puerto Rico has one non-voting representative in Congress and residents on the island cannot vote in the presidential election.

“There’s a little bit of intimidation at the beginning, but once we explain… what’s at stake, there’s a lot of enthusiasm,” said Franceschini, who called it a “historical increase” of Puerto Rican voters. “We are seeing that they are paying attention, especially with the experience that they had coming from Puerto Rico, especially with the devastation of Maria… they understand.”

Nancy Batista, Florida director of Mi Familia Vota, said she believed Puerto Ricans are an influential voting bloc among Hispanic voters in the state, and compared them with Cuban Americans in South Florida.

Tuesday was the last day to register to vote in most of the state, though Gov. Rick Scott's administration extended the deadline for county supervisor of election offices planning to close before the arrival of Hurricane Michael.

Kara Watkins