Puerto Rico moves up 2020 Democratic primary to March

The change will give Latinos more say in deciding the Democratic presidential nominee
Puerto Rican residents in San Juan vote during the U.S. territory's Republican primary on March 6, 2016.
Puerto Rican residents in San Juan vote during the U.S. territory's Republican primary on March 6, 2016.Carlos Giusti / AP file

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By Suzanne Gamboa

Hours before stepping down Friday, former Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló signed a law moving the island's 2020 Democratic primary from June to the last Sunday in March, which could give island residents more say in who becomes the party nominee and expand the impact of Latino voters in next year's elections.

By June, the nominee has been decided, rendering a primary that month essentially academic, Rosselló stated in a news release.

“This legislative measure provides the opportunity to put Puerto Rico on the radar of potential presidential candidates in the Democratic Party. The candidates will not only pay attention to Puerto Rico but will have to clearly stipulate their positions regarding the issues that affect the island," Rosselló stated.

"In changing the date to the month of March, we can engage candidates directly on the political and economic inequality that Puerto Rico goes through," Rosselló added.

The last Sunday in March 2020 is March 29. Republicans on the island hold their primary March 8.

Residents of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, can vote in party primaries, but not in general elections.

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Puerto Rico will join Texas and California in holding primaries on Super Tuesday, March 3. Nevada holds it caucus Feb. 22. Florida will hold its primaries on March 17.

There are at least 16 million Latinos eligible to vote in those four states, according to the Pew Research Center. About 3.2 million people live in Puerto Rico, with about 82 percent over the age of 18.

The 2020 election will the first time that Latinos are the largest nonwhite group of eligible voters. Latino turnout at the polls, however, is usually much lower than white and black voters.

In December, California, the state with the largest number of Latinos, moved up its primary, usually held June 7, to March 3.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla had previously told NBC News that increasing the influence of Latino voters and other groups in the diverse state was one of the main reasons the state moved up its primary.

In June, Rosselló had sent Puerto Rico's Legislature a bill moving up the date, saying this would bring national attention to Puerto Ricans, particularly in the Democratic primaries. Passage of the legislation last month was overshadowed by the political crisis in Puerto Rico that led to Rosselló being forced to resign and a chaotic search for a replacement. Rossello officially left office at 5 p.m. EDT Friday.

Along with its political upheaval, Puerto Rico is drowning in debt and slogging through recovering from the 2017 wallop of Hurricane Maria.

Several groups have been pressing 2020 Democratic candidates to address Puerto Rico's issues, but they have gotten scant mention in the party's debates. Julían Castro addressed Puerto Rico in this week's debate and made the island his first campaign stop after announcing his candidacy in January.

Melissa Mark-Viverito, interim president of Latino Victory Project, said the change in the primary date makes Puerto Rico relevant and will give a boost to the pressure groups have been putting on candidates to issue policy platforms on the many issues the island is facing. Latino Victory plans a Nov. 6 presidential candidate forum on the island.

In his campaign, Castro, the only Latino in the race, has discussed a second route to the White House that involves not just the traditional primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, but travels through Nevada, Arizona, Florida, California and Texas — all states with high populations of eligible Latino voters.

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