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Poll: Coronavirus pandemic has Puerto Ricans on edge about in-person voting

Nearly three-quarters of Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland polled said they are concerned about exposure to the coronavirus if they vote in person.
Image: People march in the Puerto Rican Day Parade on 5th Avenue in New York on June 9, 2019.
People march in the Puerto Rican Day Parade on Fifth Avenue in New York on June 9, 2019.Craig Ruttle / AP

Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland are on edge about voting in person during the coronavirus pandemic, which is wreaking havoc on many of their lives, a new poll shows.

The fear of exposure to Covid-19 by voting in person, combined with a preference to vote by mail and confusion over state mail-in voting processes, could diminish turnout rates, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a progressive organization, warned in a report on the poll.

Nearly three-quarters of Puerto Ricans said they were either very concerned (42 percent) or somewhat concerned (32 percent) about exposure to the coronavirus if they vote in person.

Almost half said they will vote by mail. But 4 in 10 are not familiar with the mail-in voting process of their states. About 59 percent say they have never voted by mail in their states.

The comprehensive survey of stateside Puerto Ricans, conducted by the Democratic polling firm Latino Decisions, found that nearly 4 in 10 said they or someone close to them on the mainland had become ill from the coronavirus and that 3 in 10 said they have family or friends on the islands who were ill from it.

In addition, a third of respondents said they or a member of their household had lost a job, and 42 percent more had experienced fewer work hours or pay cuts.

John Halpin, co-director of the Center for American Progress' politics and engagement program, said in a statement that to engage Puerto Rican voters this election cycle, political leaders and parties need to offer "specific plans to improve their lives on jobs, education and health care."

Attention has increasingly focused on the Puerto Rican community's voting preferences as its numbers have grown and its voting population has matched that of Cuban Americans in Florida. President Donald Trump's campaign has made headway this year with Cuban Americans in Florida, a must-win state for him.

As of 2017, about 5.6 million people of Puerto Rican descent lived on the U.S. mainland.

According to Pew Research, Puerto Ricans have been Florida's fastest-growing Hispanic-origin group over the past decade, with many having arrived recently as a consequence of hurricanes Irma and Maria.

The new survey released Thursday shows that Puerto Ricans in Florida largely disapprove of Trump, with 70 percent of respondents in Florida saying they either strongly disapprove or somewhat disapprove of the president. However, Puerto Rican voters in Florida helped elect Republican Gov. Rick Scott to the Senate, crediting him for his efforts to help settle Puerto Ricans displaced by the storm.

Addressing the issues that Puerto Ricans face can reap enormous electoral benefits in swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania.

Low marks on government's hurricane response

Trump's response to Hurricane Maria and the slow trickling of reconstruction funding approved by Congress have made capturing the Puerto Rican vote a bigger obstacle for him.

According to the poll, two-thirds of respondents said they were negatively affected by Hurricane Maria and more than half said they or their friends and family had to move from the islands to the mainland because of the hurricane.

The Trump administration gets low marks for its response to Maria, with 13 percent saying the federal government has performed well in getting the island territory back on its feet.

Amid the ravages of Covid-19 and the aftermath of the hurricane, Puerto Ricans in the poll expressed "profound dissatisfaction with how they perceive government working for them," said Stephen Nuño-Perez, a senior analyst at Latino Decisions.

While that creates an opportunity for Democrats, the party has been criticized for doing too little to woo the electorate in Florida and for starting late in Latino outreach nationally.

Less than 50 days from the election, 54 percent of Puerto Ricans said they had been contacted by a political party or a nonprofit group and encouraged to vote or register to vote.

An issue that resonates with stateside Puerto Ricans is the islands' political status. When asked about their position from a range of options, respondents gave mixed responses, with 30 percent choosing statehood as their preferred resolution, 20 percent preferring the islands' current commonwealth status and 19 percent preferring independence.

However, a strong majority of those surveyed, 86 percent, said they were more likely to support a candidate who endorses making Puerto Rico a state, giving Puerto Ricans equal representation in Congress.

That, the report says, could be closely tied to Puerto Ricans' views of identity, with 63 percent saying being Puerto Rican is a "very important part" of how they view themselves, including over half of third-generation mainland Puerto Ricans.

"This survey showed broad disapproval of corruption on the island of Puerto Rico and in government in general, but it also illustrated the great pride Puerto Ricans have in their home," Nuño-Perez said. "A politician that can connect with that pride among Puerto Ricans stands to benefit greatly this November."

The poll results are derived from interviews of 1,000 Puerto Ricans and people of Puerto Rican descent living on the mainland, including an oversample of 200 Puerto Ricans in Pennsylvania. The interviews were conducted in English and Spanish from Sept. 4 to Sept. 11. The margin of error for the overall sample is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

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