Puerto Rico’s political self-insularity causing low electoral turnout stateside
Puerto Rico has one of the highest levels of voter participation in the western hemisphere – yet when Puerto Ricans move from the islands to the mainland US, electoral turnout is low among Puerto Ricans.
This low turnout is partially linked to the lack of knowledge of the political process on the mainland, the issues that are voted on, differences between political parties, how often people vote, information on voter IDs, and even how to register to vote itself.
Although Puerto Rico is part of the US, the electoral culture on the islands is drastically different than that of the mainland US. Puerto Ricans can participate in presidential primaries but have their own local elections every four years. Election days are public holidays in which the streets are flooded with caravanas – cars lining up, playing music and going around the neighborhood with flyers and signs, all with the purpose to motivate people to go out and vote. The political parties are different as well – the two main parties in Puerto Rico are based on the issue of the political status, with the local Democrat and Republican parties not participating in local elections. Furthermore, local officials, media, and customs tend to treat federal issues in the US as foreign matters, with local news outlets often including news from Congress in their international news sections, despite Puerto Rico being a jurisdiction within the United States.
It can be a cultural shock when moving to the mainland, as many have migrated after the 2017 hurricane season, and particularly after Hurricane Maria. It is unknown what the exact numbers are—it was estimated based on flight data, that nearly 300,000 have migrated from the islands. The largest concentration is in central Florida.
There are 1.2 million Puerto Ricans residing in Florida—in which 500,000are registered to vote currently. There are 340,000 Puerto Ricans that are eligible to vote but are not yet registered. In a state where 1-2% can shift the tides one way or another for a win, registering voters and engaging with them has become a priority in the frequent battleground state.
Puerto Ricans are eligible to vote in the state that they are residents in – for local elections in their state, federal level elections as well as presidential primaries and general elections. This has sparked initiatives by advocacy groups such as Heal America, PODER, Mi Familia Vota, UnidosUS, and the Hispanic Federation to register Puerto Ricans to vote.
It has also initiated pushes from both the democratic party and the republican party, specifically in engaging Puerto Rican voters in Florida. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez pledged an “innovation grant” for additional outreach in Florida “to make sure that we are listening to Puerto Ricans and we are organizing in the Puerto Rican community. And it’s not simply asking people to vote…It’s also asking the existential question of how can we help.” The Republican party in Florida has also began holding monthly events specifically to reach out to the Puerto Rican community.
It is not just the lack of knowledge that has affected the low turnout – but also there are those who are simply not interested in participating politically. Citing perceived, if unsubstantiated unfairness in the system, a lack of feeling integrated on the mainland, the electoral college, and the lack of impact of voting has brought some to disregard voting altogether.
There are also those, especially in this current wave of Puerto Rican migrants, that are currently dealing with pulling their life together after Hurricane Maria. Registering to vote and voting itself is not a priority for many who have only recently migrated.