Voter participation in Puerto Rico is high — up to 80 percent of Puerto Ricans turn out to vote in most major elections, compared to less than 60 percent among Americans on the mainland. Part of this is due to a “culture of the vote,” which includes the fact that Election Day is a holiday during which most people don't work and schools are closed (and you can drink afterward), but it's not just that. Puerto Ricans take their ability to vote seriously, in part because, as a colony of the United States, the voting day extravaganza of political party colors and affiliations passed on in the family — pro-statehood blue, pro-commonwealth red and independence green — is one of the only ways we can exercise our rights as Puerto Ricans.
But there is a marked drop in voter participation when Puerto Ricans move to the mainland, and among Boricuas there in general. Puerto Ricans in the United States not only have lower voter participation than non-Hispanics, according to a 2016 study by Hunter University's Carlos Vargas-Ramos, they often have lower participation rates than Hispanics on average
For one — in a cycle that has been repeating itself — there are currently about 200,000 Boricuas that have yet to register to vote since their arrival on the mainland. They lack the proper information about voter registration, they are not familiar with the U.S. party system or how the elections actually work. Many don't even know that there is early voting here, so they don't know that this election has already started. Their lack of knowledge about how things work in the United States — which is not by accident — is suppressing their participation and it has for decades.
That means Puerto Ricans, especially the newly arrived, could be both one of the most disenfranchised groups and the biggest missed opportunity for Democrats of the 2020 elections.
We've seen this before: in 2015 and 2016, the financial crisis on the island sent tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans to the mainland, and particularly to south and central Florida, where they would've been eligible to vote in the 2016 elections; Trump’s margin of victory in Florida in 2016 when he won by 1.2 percentage points or 112,911 votes. Organizers said at the time that Hillary Clinton, despite her strong margins with Puerto Rican voters in the state, had failed to fully address the issues of concern to them.
Then, more than 130,000 Puerto Ricans fled the island after Hurricane Maria in 2017, and tens of thousands more settled in central Florida. By 2018, Puerto Ricans in Orange County numbered more than 200,000, and almost 125,000 lived in Osceola County. That’s almost three times Trump's 2016 margin of victory, but they didn't deliver for Democrats in 2018 either. In fact, Puerto Ricans helped Republican Rick Scott win his 2018 Senate race because, after the devastation of Maria, as governor of the state, Scott welcomed them warmly and showed he cared about the Puerto Rican community and the island.
Experts also noted that there weren't enough efforts made to help Puerto Ricans register to vote or engage them in the nuances of mainland politics in 2018.
And now it's 2020. Florida is again a key swing state and the Puerto Ricans living there could decide who becomes the next president — which is why Joe Biden and Donald Trump are both busy luring the Boricua voter. But these are Biden’s voters to lose: Puerto Ricans will never forgive Trump for his treatment of Puerto Rico and most will not vote for him. The Democratic Party, however, needs to do a better job at engaging Boricuas and getting them to the polls, or else Florida in 2020 will be a repeat in 2016 and 2018 — and the express desires of Puerto Rican voters (a recent poll by EquisLabs, a Democratic polling group, suggested that 61 percent of Floridians who identify as Puerto Rican preferred Biden) will be lost because they won't be able to adequately exercise their franchise.
Puerto Ricans, especially those who have lived in Puerto Rico, need to feel — and are used to feeling — engaged in the process and by the candidates.
Latino strategists say the Biden campaign needs to show it cares about Puerto Rican voters with both its messaging and with boots on the ground if it expects to get the largest nonwhite voting bloc to the polls this year. This means providing information on the voting process, hiring Puerto Ricans to lead the outreach to Puerto Ricans, and running a culturally sensitive campaign.
There are signs that this isn't happening
“Several grassroots organizations have told me that Democrats still haven't figured out how to mobilize the Puerto Rican vote," Julio Ricardo Varela, founder of Latino Rebels and co-host of In The Thick, a political podcast, told me. "Part of it is a lack of understanding of what Puerto Rican voters care about.”
In September, Biden did announce a proposal to provide more infrastructure funding to help Puerto Rico rebuild from 2017's Hurricane Maria — but did not put a strategy in place to get the word out to the voters. Meanwhile, a few days later, Trump fought back by announcing nearly $13 billion for recovery efforts from the disaster — which were technically funds already approved by Congress that he stalled.
More recently, in a letter obtained by the Miami Herald, Florida field organizers for the Biden campaign who are Puerto Rican said they had been mistreated and transferred without explanation to communities where there are almost no Puerto Ricans or other Hispanics. “The [Coordinated Campaign of Florida] is suppressing the Hispanic vote by removing Spanish-speaking organizers from Central Florida without explanation, which fails to confront a system of white-dominated politics we are supposed to be working against as organizers of a progressive party,” the letter reads, according to the Herald.
“There has also been political segregation in Central Florida for decades," Varela noted. "This is the South we are talking about, and the growing Puerto Rican community is no way near its full political power because established power in the region is not ready to relinquish it.”
In a recent address to the Latino community, Biden said that “more than any other time, the Hispanic community, the Latino community holds in the palm of the hand the destiny of this country. You can decide the direction of this country."
The Biden campaign would do well to heed its own candidate’s words.