Why hasn’t there been a rush of Puerto Rico voter registrations in Florida?

Since Hurricane Maria devastated parts of Puerto Rico, there has been an exodus of people moving from the island to Florida. NBC News reported that by the end of November the number was more than 200,000. An influx of that many American citizens to Florida could have a big impact on this November’s elections. But there are reports in the last week that fewer Maria refugees have registered to vote in Florida than expected – so far at least.

To find out why, WMNF News interviewed several groups doing outreach to Puerto Ricans in central Florida. In general, most of them agree with Tampa Democratic Congress member Kathy Castor, who says there’s still plenty of time to register to vote – and that there are more pressing issues people are dealing with first.

“Seán, voter registration for Puerto Rican families is secondary right now. What we’re focused on is making sure that children are enrolled in school, that they have a safe, clean place to live, whether that’s temporary or transitional for the long term.”

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The liberal-leaning group Organize Florida does voter outreach and registrations. Their central Florida regional director, Yulissa Arce thinks that as many as 300,000 Puerto Ricans have fled to Florida post-Maria.

“A lot of these people are fleeing as economic and/or climate change refugees. So these are people who were directly affected by Hurricane Maria, so for them this might be a temporary situation that they had to flee. They might be getting temporary housing and temporary work with the hopes of going back.”

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Arce thinks the typical election-year voter registration drives will catch many of the new arrivals as it gets closer to the registration deadline.

The Libre Initiative is a “small-l” libertarian group funded by individuals including Charles and David Koch. The group doesn’t do voter registration, per se, but it has a Puerto Rican Outreach Project to engage new arrivals in the region from Tampa to Orlando. Wadi Gaitan is a spokesperson for the Libre Initiative and the Libre Institute.

“And although we always encourage people to, you know, engage in their civic duties, it really seems that the biggest priority has really just to establish themselves here in the Orlando area.”

The Green Party of Florida lags behind many other parties in voter registration. But one of its candidates says that it’s not yet time to concentrate on registering Hurricane Maria refugees. Robin Harris is a Green running for Orange County Commission.

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