The Daily 202: Puerto Ricans who fled to Florida after Hurricane Maria are not registering to vote

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THE BIG IDEA: Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico last September and prompted a mass exodus of more than 100,000 residents to the mainland United States. The Category 4 storm destroyed much of the island’s infrastructure, which was already decaying and crumbling amid a financial crisis and bankrupt territorial government. The exact number is still not known, but tens of thousands of people permanently resettled in Florida.

Frustration with Donald Trump’s lackadaisical and even antagonistic response — he vilified the mayor of San Juan and threatened to cut off funding for Puerto Rico at one point — prompted even some Republicans to warn that the episode could doom his presidency. After all, George W. Bush’s numbers never really recovered after Hurricane Katrina.

Because they’re already U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are eligible to vote as soon as they move to the mainland. The thinking last fall was that they’d be so angry at Trump that they’d be champing at the bit to vote against Republicans in the midterms. Operatives from both parties said that this could prove decisive in a perennial battleground like Florida where elections are always close.

Once again, the conventional wisdom turns out to have been wrong. Trump appears to be defying the old rules of politics. In this case, it’s because most of the Puerto Ricans who have come to Florida are not registering to vote or otherwise getting involved in politics. At least for now.

The Puerto Ricans emigres have mostly gravitated toward the Orlando area, mainly because so many other Puerto Ricans already lived there. The number of people of Puerto Rican origin living in Florida surpassed 1 million in 2015, which is more than double what it was in 2000. The sprawling settlement of expats outside Orlando is in the heart of the Interstate 4 corridor, which bisects Florida. This swingiest region of the swingiest state in America has determined the outcome of multiple presidential elections.

But in the two Orlando-area counties with the highest concentration of Puerto Ricans, there has not been any meaningful increase in Democratic registration. In fact, because inactive voters are removed from the rolls, there are 12,315 fewer registered voters in Orange County today than on Election Day in 2016. In Osceola County, there are 3,400 more Democrats, 800 more Republicans and 9,200 more independents than the last election. For context, there are more than 200,000 registered voters in Osceola.

Steve Schale, a Tallahassee-based Democratic strategist who directed Barack Obama’s 2008 victory in Florida and was a senior adviser on his 2012 reelection campaign, has been closely tracking these numbers in Excel spreadsheets, which he shared Thursday.

“The concern I’ve had for a while is that … the Maria impact was probably not going to be as significant as people initially thought,” he said. “We’ve got two-and-a-half months left for voter registration. But these numbers show it’s not going to happen organically. … This is a warning flare that there’s real work to be done. … Dems need to be registering around the clock, which they clearly aren’t doing.”

— State Rep. Amy Mercado (D), who is of Puerto Rican descent and represents Orlando, said that many of the folks who came last fall have been struggling to find affordable housing and jobs. “Their main focus obviously is going to be survival,” she said. “They have to contend with trying to figure out their day-to-day lives. So, honestly, the last thing they’re thinking about is politics.”

Mercado praised groups like Vamos4PRAction for trying to educate the new arrivals about how the system works on the mainland. She said Puerto Rico’s elections are very different from Florida’s. “They don’t understand that there’s a soil and water board, let alone why it’s important,” she said. “They don’t always realize that the local issues affect them first, before the national issues.”