Puerto Rican Voters Gain Clout Prior to U.S. Election

By Rachel Glickhouse

On November 6, Puerto Rican voters in the continental United States could form an important swing bloc. Meanwhile, the island’s electorate will participate in a referendum on Puerto Rico’s status.

Puerto Ricans could help determine the outcome of the U.S. presidential election on November 6 given their growing numbers in Florida, an important swing state. Back on the island, Puerto Ricans go to the polls on the same day to decide on the U.S. territory’s status. Voters will choose between maintaining the Puerto Rico’s current territorial relationship with the United States, becoming a U.S. state, or gaining independence.

With a struggling economy and a tough job market, Puerto Rico saw increased emigration in recent years, especially to the United States. Over 35,000 people left in 2011 alone, and for the first time the territory’s population decreased between 2000 and 2010. Unlike other Latin Americans, once Puerto Ricans move to the continental U.S., they gain full citizenship rights—including voting for president. While on the island, Puerto Ricans can vote in presidential primaries but not in general elections. Puerto Ricans do not have representation in the U.S. legislature; the island is considered a congressional district "at-large" with one non-voting representative.

With the large migration of Puerto Ricans from both the island and the northeastern United States, around 300,000 Puerto Ricans now call Central Florida home. Florida’s Latino electorate used to be dominated by Republican-leaning Cuban voters, who made up around 80 percent of Hispanic voters 20 years ago. Now, Cubans make up only 20 percent while Puerto Ricans and other Latinos encompass the rest. At this point, nearly 900,000 Puerto Ricans live in Florida—a 75 percent increase in the past decade. This group has "created another wild card in the wildest of the swing states," writes The Washington Post. "This migration could be a game-changer for the Democrats if these individuals turn out to vote," political scientist Casey Klofstad said. "In a close race, any one group can be a decider."

However, Puerto Ricans do not vote uniformly. While those who moved to Florida from the Northeast tend to lean Democrat, voters from the island are more difficult to predict, though they tend to be more socially conservative. Puerto Rican voters’ presence has not gone unnoticed: President Barack Obama campaigned in Florida in September with two former Puerto Rican governors, and Republican candidate Mitt Romney gained Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuño’s endorsement while campaigning in Orlando. Obama also visited the island last year, making him the first U.S. president to embark on a state visit there since John F. Kennedy in 1961.

Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans on the island will vote November 6 on whether to change status from a U.S. territory. They will then choose from three new options: to become an independent country, to become a U.S. state, or to be "a sovereign freely associated state." The associated state status would be similar to a commonwealth status, in which Puerto Rico and the United States would create a voluntary agreement on cooperation, but would end current ties such as qualifying for U.S. citizenship and U.S. social programs. An October poll found that 51 percent wish to keep Puerto Rico’s current status, while 39 percent wish to change it. The survey showed that 44 percent support statehood, 42 percent want sovereign-free associate status, and only 4 percent wish to be independent.

Puerto Rico previously held three similar referendums and, during the most recent one in 1998, 50 percent rejected all three new options. But if voters chose a new option this time, they could have support from the U.S. government. Romney expressed his support for statehood, saying he would help with the process should Puerto Ricans elect this option. Obama said last year that he would support Puerto Ricans’ decision on status, be it statehood or otherwise. Regardless of the outcome, though, the Puerto Rican government would have to petition the federal government and have Congress and the president sign legislation approving the status change.

In other Caribbean news:

  • Dropping 20 inches of rain in Haiti earlier this week, Hurricane Sandy killed 54 people and displaced 18,000 families in the Caribbean country. While the Haitian government took special precautions ahead of the hurricane by declaring a state of emergency and urging people to seek higher ground, the storm destroyed 70 percent of southern Haiti’s crops, killed large amounts of livestock, and could lead to an increase in cholera cases.
  • The hurricane also wreaked havoc in Cuba killing 11, destroying 137,000 homes, and causing $2.1 billion in damage. The storm wiped out between 20 and 30 percent of the country’s coffee crops.
  • An October Newlink poll found that 78 percent of Dominicans with U.S. citizenship plan to vote for President Barack Obama. The survey reports that nearly 70 percent of Puerto Ricans also support Obama. However, 52 percent of Cuban voters in the United States plan to vote for Republican candidate Mitt Romney.