Tanzina Vega: In the lead-up to the 2020 election just weeks away, we're taking a look at the Latino vote in this country. It's a special series we're calling A Votar. Today, we're zeroing in on the Puerto Rican vote. As with many things, it's complicated because Puerto Rico is a US territory. While all Puerto Ricans are citizens by birth, those who live on the island cannot vote in federal elections.
Those Puerto Ricans who are on the US mainland, however, can vote and that puts a big spotlight on the Puerto Rican diaspora in terms of its political power. With the backdrop of compounding crises, including the 2017 Hurricane Maria where 130,000 Puerto Ricans left the island, the financial crisis, a series of devastating earthquakes, and a political crisis that took down the island's governor, there's a lot to talk about. Joining me now is Nicole Acevedo, digital reporter for NBC News. Nicole, thanks for joining me.
Nicole Acevedo: Thank you.
Tanzina: We said there are 130,000 Puerto Ricans who have left the island. Where do they live now, Nicole? Where is the diaspora concentrated?
Nicole: Well, the diaspora is concentrated in mainly three states: New York, New Jersey, and Florida, which is a swing state, especially on an election year.
Tanzina: Let's talk a little bit about Florida because we know how important it is. I myself was in Florida a couple of years ago for the 2016 election talking to Puerto Ricans there about their vote. As we mentioned, so many things have happened since 2016 on the island that have affected the Puerto Rican population writ large. What does it look like in Florida right now for Puerto Ricans? Are they being courted to vote?
Nicole: They're trying. We have parties like the Republican Party with Latinos for Trump that have been rallying Latino voters in the state for the past four years, really, because even though the President was just elected, the party knew that he was going to run again for re-election. For the Democrats, it's been a little bit lagging because just this year, they said that, officially, their nominee was going to be former Vice President Joe Biden, so you have a time advantage there that's really significant when it comes to rallying voters.
I wanted to remind people in the last midterm when we had a senate run between Rick Scott, who's the governor of Florida then, and Senator Nelson. Rick Scott took the win that year. It was a really thin win. Arguably, Puerto Ricans that have recently moved to the state after Hurricane Maria, seeing how Governor Rick Scott then reacted to them and welcome them, really made a difference. I think that's a really interesting case study to really question the role of Puerto Rican voters and not just assume that because they're Latino, they're going to vote a Democrat.
Tanzina: It's a very interesting time because since that election, Nicole, crises on the island have only continued to increase. We're now seeing the island is dealing with a crisis in education, violence against women, the coronavirus issues just compounding one after the other. This president, President Trump, has had a mixed record when it comes to providing aid for the island.
He was roundly criticized for his response to Hurricane Maria by throwing paper towels at many Puerto Ricans who were suffering. Puerto Ricans cannot vote from the island. They will have to vote from the mainland. What is your assessment, Nicole, about the Puerto Ricans who are here on the mainland, the diaspora, and how excited they are to cast a vote for President Trump or for Joe Biden?
Nicole: There's no denial. We saw President Trump in his response, especially last year, vocally opposing funding to Puerto Rico. We had members of his administration from agencies that are very important for the recovery that's going to take decades, saying blatantly in congressional hearings that they were intentionally stalling funding for rebuilding homes in Puerto Rico. There's no denial about that track record. At the same time, when Puerto Ricans moved from the island to the States, it's a completely different thing.
When you grow up on the island, you're not really familiarized with a party system here in the States or how the elections work. They don't even learn about the Electoral College. It's also a learning curve that is not just necessarily, "Hey, support these candidates." Just even getting civically engaged in the first place, it's a steep learning curve. That's why timing is everything. When it comes to voting, a recent poll said that Puerto Rican voters in the States were more hesitant towards voting in-person and they were leaning more towards voting by mail.
Tanzina: That's probably because of the virus, right, Nicole?
Nicole: Exactly, so we have a lot of people that are embarking in that process right now that are voting as we speak. I think that they're still deciding when they see debates and they don't see Puerto Rico being mentioned, that may play into some things. Maybe they remember--
Tanzina: By neither candidate, we should be clear. We're not hearing Puerto Rico really in the conversation right now at all.
Nicole: Absolutely. Especially in a place like Florida, we really have to sit down and think about that, a place where Puerto Rican voters could make a difference. Why isn't Puerto Rico part of the bigger conversation as we speak?
Tanzina: I want to talk a little bit about that too because a year after Hurricane Maria, we on The Takeaway went to the island. Many people there were talking about the theme of the island being resilient after the hurricane. A year later in 2019, we spoke to a roundtable of Puerto Rican leaders who said that was about resistance. This was when Governor Rosselló was about to be removed from his position. Nicole, what would you say the theme is this year for Puerto Ricans politically?
Nicole: I think it's a decisive moment. We have seen Puerto Ricans embark and survive all these crises. This is the first election in which Puerto Ricans really have to sit back, remember all those moments, see who were the people that were there and helped, see who was not there and did not help, and really make decisions based on that because whoever gets elected, whoever they vote for in this election will determine many things for the future of Puerto Rico when it comes to its recovery and its fiscal crisis.
Tanzina: Right now, I think there are double the number of Puerto Ricans on the mainland, on the continental United States that they're on the island. If I'm not mistaken, there about five million or more Puerto Ricans here in the continental United States. Will that turn into votes at the end of the day?
Nicole: You're absolutely right. Do you have nearly six million Puerto Ricans living on the island, whether they've been here for a long time or they just moved here recently? That's always a big question. How much of that diaspora really vote? I think that there's so many things that have happened in Puerto Rico right now with all these compounding crises that we've been talking about. I truly believe that for the voter on the States, on the diaspora, it's very clear how the people they vote for here really have a say in the lives of their loved ones on the island. I do think that may drive up voting turnout. The question is, how much more it would drive it? I really think that's still to be determined.
Tanzina: Let's talk about the issue of Puerto Rican statehood, Nicole, because this is something as with a lot of things regarding the island that's been battered about as a political football, I think, particularly as this country heads into its next election. There have been people in the federal government who say that Puerto Rico and Washington, DC should become a state for political purposes. Puerto Ricans have had plebiscites for many decades now. Where do they stand and how realistic is that, Nicole?
Nicole: I think that the issue with that conversation in an election year, the territory status, is that it's very heavily politicized because the political parties on the island are based on that, the people that believe on statehood, the people that believe on the status quo, people that believe that Puerto Rico should be independent. It really gets tainted by the politics of parties just staying alive.
I think that this year, what we're seeing is that regardless of what ideology you may have, that's not something that's going to happen quickly. That's not something that we're going to see in the next decade or maybe in our lifetimes. People are really focusing more on saying, "Okay, how can I make sure that our fiscal crisis gets resolved that's been straining so many generations of Puerto Ricans for decades? Now, with the recovery, how do I make sure that this recovery, it's not stalled for the next decade, two decades, and then we never see that money go into our communities and help people's lives?"
People are being more aware that it's not as easy as, "You know what? If we were a state, we wouldn't have this problem with the federal funding." I think more people are being more critical about that right now. Even with the plebiscite that's happening on the island on November 3rd, it's usually historically was seen that that's a tactic from the pro-statehood party to rally its base because they're excited to vote in favor of their ideology. I think the Puerto Rican voter wants more than that at this point.
Tanzina: Nicole, thanks so much. Nicole Acevedo is the digital reporter for NBC News. Thanks for joining me, Nicole.
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