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On Voter Registration Day, Latino organizations in Florida fan out to register voters

“There are more than 100,000 new potential registrants. There is a lot of work to do," said the state director of the Hispanic Federation.
Image: A woman fills out a new voter registration form
Cecilia Paz, foreground, fills out a new voter registration form because of a change of address, as she waits in line to attend a rally on Oct. 11, 2016 for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and former vice president Al Gore in Miami.Wilfredo Lee / AP file

MIAMI — One in three Florida residents who are eligible to vote is not registered to do so, according to the New Florida Majority, a nonprofit that helped launch a statewide drive to sign people up on Tuesday, National Voter Registration Day.

Other organizations also held events to register voters in one of the country’s most crucial swing states.

The Hispanic Federation, a nonprofit advocacy organization, had a full staff of canvassers throughout Central Florida, including Orange and Volusia counties that are heavily Puerto Rican.

But for many organizations, their task goes beyond registering voters. There is a tendency for new voters to register with no party affiliation, so organizations have taken it upon themselves to educate them in the electoral process.

Some, like the Hispanic Federation, are holding forums in the evening to educate voters on their rights and make sure they understand the power of voting.

“There are more than 100,000 new potential registrants,” said Yanidsi Velez, senior state director for the Hispanic Federation. “There is a lot of work to do.”

Last year, Hispanic Federation registered over 50,000 voters in the state and are expecting to register far more next year.

Andrea Mercado, executive director of New Florida Majority, said they had registered many young people, some who were formally incarcerated, and others.

“We are seeing an incredible amount of energy coming out of 2018 when we saw more people coming out to vote in a midterm in Florida than anytime in recent history,” Mercado said.

They had 4,000 volunteers in 2018, and Mercado said she wouldn’t be surprised if next year they have 5,000.

“People understand that the 2020 elections are the most important election of our lifetime,” she said.

For decades, Florida has had a constant influx of immigrants from Latin America, creating a new pool of potential voters to register as they become citizens. The wave of Puerto Ricans who have been settling in the Interstate 4 corridor also keep canvassers occupied. (Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and can register to vote as soon as they move to the mainland.)

The largest diaspora of Puerto Ricans is now in Florida, with 1.2 million living in the state. Many have fled the island’s crippled economy and the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Another potential pool of voters also became available after Florida passed Amendment 4 in last year's midterms, restoring the voting rights of felons who make up an estimated 1.5 million potential new registrants.

Soraya Marquez, the state director for Mi Familia Vota, a civic engagement organization, said the months to come function as a training for canvassers before the heavy registering period begins in March.

Right now, it can be difficult for canvassers to register people to vote outside supermarkets or shopping centers. But as Election Day approaches, people tend to feel the pressure of registering. “It’s because they are in the middle of the electoral climate,” Marquez said.

Last year, Mi Familia Vota said it registered 100,000 new voters.

National Voter Registration Day is held on the fourth Tuesday of September. It was first observed in 2012 and has grown in popularity since.

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