Puerto Ricans Fleeing Devastated Island May Permanently Alter Florida's Electoral Landscape

Hurricane Maria has left Puerto Rico devastated.
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Hurricane Maria has left Puerto Rico devastated. Weeks after the storm hit, infrastructure in the island is still in such bad shape that less than 20 percent of people have electricity and 64 percent don’t have clean drinking water.

The terrible conditions in the aftermath of the storm and the inappropriate response by government relief agencies have forced many to leave the island and relocate to Florida. This may lead to what many are speculating is a demographic and electoral shift in the state. In Orange County alone, an average of 104 people every workday are transferring their driver’s licenses from Puerto Rico to Florida and the Tax Collector’s office reported that in a recent six-month period, there have been 12,265 license transfers.

Although Hurricane Maria has sped up the arrivals of people from the island to Florida, this is hardly a new development. More than 80,000 Puerto Ricans have relocated to the state every year in the last two years, a number that increased in the last few years due to the financial crisis that has besieged the island. More than a million Puerto Ricans call the state of Florida home, making up five percent of the population.

Since Hurricane Maria, about 139,000 Puerto Ricans have relocated to the state. To put that in perspective, a Twitter user pointed out that the Mariel boat lift in 1980 brought 125,000 Cubans, significantly changing the make-up of Miami. We might be seeing something similar happening right before our eyes.

This is all even more significant considering that, even though they might not be treated as such by our government, Puerto Ricans are American citizens and therefore can vote. Already there are efforts underway in central Florida to begin registering people to vote, and both parties have been busy courting the new influx of potential voters.

More importantly though, Puerto Rico needs help. Food, electricity, clean water, clean up and the restoration of its infrastructure in the island. The folks settling in Florida will surely pay attention to how elected officials respond to the needs of their community both here in the state, but also back on the island.

The actions of Donald Trump will also surely be a drag on potential Republican Puerto Rican voters. His response in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria was nothing short of atrocious, with a full six days passing before acknowledging the crisis. Then he quickly started a feud with the mayor of San Juan, calling her an “ingrate” on Twitter and saying that local leaders “were not able to get their workers to help. They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”

Trump eventually flew to Puerto Rico, where he spent his time shifting his attention between the woes of Puerto Rico’s residents and the issue of NFL players protesting police brutality, joking that Hurricane Maria was not a “real catastrophe” in comparison to Hurricane Katrina, and complaining that the impact of the hurricane had thrown the federal budget “a little out of whack.”

In what has now become an infamous moment, Trump threw paper towel rolls at people waiting to receive relief supplies, a move that many considered insensitive.

Puerto Ricans relocating to Florida have the potential to change the electoral landscape in the state, and they will surely remember how elected officials treated them and their community in their time of need and vulnerability.

Thomas Kennedy is a communications fellow for the Center for Community Change.

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