Puerto Rico Hurricane Migrants May Be Wild Card in U.S. Elections

Sebastien Malo and Adriana Brasileiro, Thomas Reuters Foundation March 29, 2018

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In Florida, a hurricane a thousand miles away could this year contribute to political upsets and be an early instance of a new kind of American tale: one where climate change, by uprooting voters, is reshaping electoral politics.

Puerto Rico is still reeling from Hurricane Maria. The island’s worst natural disaster in nearly a century gutted homes, left hospitals flooded, and knocked out power to the island’s 3.4 million U.S. citizens, many of whom remain without electricity.

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More than 135,000 Puerto Ricans relocated to the United States in the six months after Maria, according to a report published this month by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York.

Some 56,500 of them have moved to Florida, a destination long favored by Puerto Rican migrants, the study estimates.

If they register and vote, they will add an additional element of political uncertainty in a state that has long been a battlefield between political parties, said Anthony Suarez, a former Florida state lawmaker of Puerto Rican descent.

The Puerto Rican influx means that at least seven of 27 congressional seats in south and central Florida are now too close to call in elections coming later this year, Suarez and other political pundits say.

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Democrats need to pick up 24 seats nationwide to recapture control of the congressional House of Representatives in mid-term elections set for Nov. 6, with all 435 House seats up for grabs.

About seven in 10 Puerto Rican voters polled in Florida on the eve of the 2016 U.S. elections said they would vote for Democratic candidates, according to a survey by polling firm Latino Decisions.

Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, islanders who stay at home cannot vote in U.S. congressional elections — but Puerto Ricans who relocate to the mainland gain that right.

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U.S. President Donald Trump carried Florida in the last elections by about 110,000 votes – and Florida has long been one of a handful of states where victory is often crucial for candidates aiming to take the White House.

In 2000, a 537-vote advantage in Florida was what put former Republican U.S. President George W. Bush in office, after a contentious election recount gave him the narrowest of victories over U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

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But the role new migrants to Florida will play in upcoming elections depends in large part on how many are registered to vote, he said.

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“This is a population that should not be ignored,” said Esteban Garces, Mi Familia Vota’s director for Florida.

“The Puerto Rican vote continues to grow in Florida – specifically in Central Florida – and with this growth comes a tremendous amount of political power.”

For political scientist Nick Obradovich, the scramble to send Puerto Ricans to Florida’s voting booths may herald things to come in the United States as the global climate changes, bringing more extreme weather and potentially more displacement.

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a study published last year in the journal Climate Change, Obradovich found incumbent politicians in 19 countries — including the United States — were less likely to get re-elected as temperatures increased and voters’ well-being declined.

He believes the trend may eventually bring new risks for democracies.

Voters may start kicking out politicians for being unable to fend off the spiraling effects of climate change — and that could push elected representatives who favor thoughtful, longer-term approaches to ditch them for populist, short-sighted policies, he said.

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