By Carmen Sesin

MIAMI — With voter registration now closed in Florida, Latino groups are working to galvanize Puerto Rican and other Latino voters in a state with a number of key races that have the potential to flip parties and help determine who controls the House.

Tuesday was the last day to register to vote in Florida and over 57,000 Latinos were registered in Central Florida by Mi Familia Vota and the Hispanic Federation, two civic engagement organizations working under the coalition of Respeta Mi Gente which seeks to empower Puerto Rican voters.

Additionally, UnidosUS, a non-profit national organization, registered over 48,000 people in South Florida and Central Florida combined. Both areas have a heavy concentration of Latinos. It was the largest non-partisan effort to register voters in the state during this election cycle.

Central Florida has caught the attention of many in the political arena because of the large influx of Puerto Ricans that began with the financial crisis in 2006 and intensified after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island over one year ago.

Between 30,000 and 50,000 Puerto Ricans have now settled in Florida after Hurricane Maria, according to Stefan Rayer, Population Program director at the University of Florida. There are over 1 million Puerto Ricans throughout Florida.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and are able to vote when they move to the mainland U.S., once they register.

Now that the Florida deadline to register has passed, groups are focusing on educating voters and mobilizing them to get out to vote on Election Day, Nov. 6. Because political parties in Puerto Rico vary greatly from the ones here, groups are knocking on doors and educating former island residents on the political system here. In Puerto Rico, the two main political parties focus on the status of Puerto Rico, with one advocating for statehood and the other for the current commonwealth status.

Latinos are energized during this election cycle, according to different Latino groups.

“We witnessed voter turnout during the primary elections at rates seen during presidential elections,” said Nancy Batista, Florida state director of Mi Familia Vota.

The group registered 30,000 people to vote this year and in comparison, they registered just 3,000 more prior to the 2016 presidential election, when people are generally more enthusiastic about voting than in midterm elections.

The Hispanic Federation registered 16,000 prior to the 2016 presidential election; they registered 27,000 this midterm year.

“What we’re seeing is tremendous enthusiasm,” said Betsy Franceschini, senior state director for Florida at the Hispanic Federation.

She said they have seen a historical increase in participation in comparison to midterm elections in the past in the state of Florida. Over half of those they registered to vote in Central Florida are Puerto Rican.

Puerto Ricans are interested in a number of issues, especially economic ones, and not just rebuilding their island, as some people assume.

“What we found after having thousands of conversations is that it’s bread and butter issues that affect all Americans,” said Frederick Vélez from Respeta Mi Gente.

Rep Darren Soto, D-Fla., who was on a media call with the different groups, said “civic engagement now will make sure that politicians will be paying attention later to these critical issues facing the Hispanic community.”

With a month before the midterms, UnidosUS, which is not part of the Respeta Mi Gente coalition, is educating Latinos on the value of voting.

“When we join together with people from all walks of life to solve problems, we can ensure that our elected leaders work for the good of all our communities,” said Clarissa Martínez, deputy vice president of policy and advocacy for UnidosUS.

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