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A wave of Puerto Rican migration could make Florida a Democratic stronghold

Soraya Marquez, state coordinator for Mi Familia Vota, and her crew hit a Puerto Rican neighborhood, registering Latinos to vote in the 2016 presidential election on July 24, 2015 in Kissimmee, Fl. (Photo by Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post/Getty)
Soraya Marquez, state coordinator for Mi Familia Vota, and her crew hit a Puerto Rican neighborhood, registering Latinos to vote in the 2016 presidential election on July 24, 2015 in Kissimmee, Fl. 

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Back home in Puerto Rico, Jeamy Ramirez grew up feeling a strong social pressure to register to vote on the day she turned 18. But once she moved to the mainland, among the hundreds of Puerto Ricans to make the jump to central Florida each month, Ramirez noticed a stark cultural shift -- few bothered to register, let alone cast a vote.

In the midst of a massive migration wave from the Caribbean, Puerto Ricans are on pace to outnumber Florida’s Cuban population, which for generations dominated all Hispanic groups in the Sunshine State.

Their involvement in the political process stands to dramatically reshape electoral outcomes -- Cubans consistently vote Republican, while Puerto Ricans tend to lean Democratic. But this burgeoning power from within the Latino voting bloc hinges on one key detail -- whether Puerto Ricans would actually register and turn out.

“Imagine if we all together go out and vote,” Ramirez, 37, said. “We can make a lot of changes.”

More than 1 million people have resettled to the heart of Florida in recent years to escape Puerto Rico’s dire opportunities and financial turmoil. And as US citizens by birth, Puerto Ricans become easy targets for both parties to pad their voting rolls once the newcomers move to the mainland.

There are signs that the massive migration wave is set to have lasting benefits for the Democratic Party. Hispanics account for 88 percent of growth in Democratic voters in Florida over the last decade, according to the Pew Research Center. Democrats now hold a voter registration advantage over Republicans with Florida Latinos. And the diverse demographics are only expected to grow.

These communities are popping up in crucial voting districts, dotting neighborhoods along the I-4 corridor, which consistently determines which way the state will swing in any given election.

“The number of Puerto Ricans living in Florida is not only rivaling the Cuban population, it’s almost equal,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research at Pew. “It’s potentially a swing vote area because of this growing population of Puerto Ricans.”

Holding them back, however, are low levels of engagement once they reach Florida. They leave behind a dramatically different party system and voting process -- Puerto Ricans vote every four years but are unable to participate in US general elections. Among newcomers who have only recently moved to central Florida, few are familiar with the parties or candidates.

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“Many have no idea. They say, ‘Hillary who?’ Or ‘Democrat what?’” said Neil Rios, 18, a volunteer canvasser with the national nonprofit group Mi Familia Vota.

The disparity between voter participation back home and on the mainland has advocates like Maribel Hastings, a Puerto Rican native and senior adviser with America’s Voice, scratching their heads to explain why so few choose to approach voting in the states with same sense of duty.

“In Puerto Rico, we have one of the highest voter participations in the country,” Hastings explained. “Once they move to the mainland, they don’t vote. It’s really hard to get them registered and get them out and vote.”

Organizations like Mi Familia Vota, which focuses on helping immigrant communities obtain citizenship and register to vote, caught a break this year with a presidential election cycle that has consistently captured the attention of people worldwide.

Donald Trump’s candidacy -- and his consistently inflammatory rhetoric designed to scapegoat minority communities -- has led to the unintended consequence of boosting voter rolls and citizenship tests with immigrants dead set against seeing the reality TV star become president.

“We’ve heard everything from 'I want to become a citizen because I don’t want Trump to win,'” said Maria Ponce, a spokesperson for the pro-immigrant group iAmerica. “That has been the constant item that we have been hearing from many, many Latinos.”

Ramirez, who canvases supermarkets, neighborhoods and schools in the Orlando area, noticed the same: People are more willing to register to vote if there is a candidate they fear. But increasingly, Puerto Ricans are choosing to register as unaffiliated with any party.

It’s a growing trend for Hispanics to reject party alignment -- according to Pew, more Hispanics are unaffiliated than those registered as Republicans. While it means that voters can keep their options open for the general election, it also means that unaffiliated Latinos won’t be able to participate in Florida’s March 15 primary.

Standing outside a supermarket in Orlando, where she’s lived since 2012, Ramirez was making a last ditch-effort to reach new potential voters so they could participate in the contest on Tuesday.

“Today is a good day,” she said as she counted the stack of filled-out forms. More than 20 new registrations in a little over an hour.

“We’ll do better tomorrow,” she said.