With the Florida voter registration deadline only weeks away, a group of Puerto Rican college students, all participants in the Córdova Congressional Internship Program, has launched Boricua Decide 2012. This is the first social media campaign targeted to boost Puerto Rican voter turnout in the Sunshine State.
If Boricua Decide 2012 and other complementary voter outreach efforts are successful, Puerto Rican voters in Florida will have an opportunity to play a decisive role in the November election, become political players and ultimately empower their community. They will be in a better position to grow their own legislators, influence the flow of resources into their communities, gain the attention of national leaders, and represent the interests of Puerto Ricans at large, particularly of those who live in the U.S. territory.
There are 2 million eligible Hispanic voters in Florida of which 28 percent are Puerto Rican and 32 percent are Cuban. As of July, only 1.6 million Hispanics were registered to vote. Boricua Decide 2012, a non-partisan initiative, would like to close this gap by increasing Puerto Rican voter participation in the November election.
Florida is the mother of all battleground states. With 29 electoral votes, it ranks third (with New York) after California and Texas. President Obama won Florida by 205,000 votes and this year's race is expected to be tighter.
There are 850,000 Puerto Ricans residing in Florida, mostly along the I-4 corridor linking Orlando and Tampa. Over 40 percent of them arrived from Puerto Rico in the last decade, lured by employment opportunities and affordable housing.
The Boricua Decide 2012 slogan -- "850 thousand for 1 Puerto Rico" -- taps into their strong connection to the Island. It asks Florida Puerto Ricans to give voice to the 3.7 million Puerto Ricans who cannot vote in national elections because they live in a U.S. territory. These American citizens are often treated as an afterthought by the Federal government.
Most of the 4.6 million Puerto Ricans living in the mainland are concentrated in the North East. They trend Democrat. Their political influence is diluted, in part, because they cast their vote in blue states (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts).
Florida Puerto Ricans also lean Democrat but they are more conservative and politically less predictable. They voted for Obama in 2008, but they also have backed Republican Governors Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio. Four Republican and one Independent Puerto Ricans ran in Congressional primaries last August. One of them, Colonel Evelio "EJ" Otero, Jr., son of a well-known Puerto Rican news anchorman, won his race.
Being swing voters in one of the swingiest states has made Puerto Ricans the focus of national attention. Both the Obama and Romney campaigns are courting them and the candidates and their surrogates have made multiple trips to central Florida.
Florida Puerto Ricans know they are in an potentially powerful position. The question is whether they will take advantage of it by registering before October 9 and voting on November 6.
In Puerto Rico, at least 80 percent of registered voters go to the polls and at least 65 percent of voting-age individuals are registered to vote. Although participation in the Island has declined over the last decade, it still remains higher than in the U.S.
However, when Puerto Ricans are transplanted to Florida their political involvement diminishes. Puerto Rican political leaders allied with the Republican or Democratic parties are trying to energize Puerto Rican voters in Florida because there is so much to be gained.
For the past decade the Puerto Rican population in Florida has grown by 76 percent. By comparison Cuban Americans, numbering 1.2 million, only grew by 46 percent. If this trend continues, Puerto Ricans stand to become the dominant Hispanic political force in the state. And if they do, perhaps they can learn from Cuban Americans who have so effectively used their clout to advance their community's interests and shape U.S.-Cuba policy.
For the first time in U.S. history, Puerto Ricans have a unique opportunity to determine the outcome of a presidential election and advance the interests of all Puerto Ricans. Boricua Decide 2012 wants to convince Florida Puerto Ricans to live up to their potential.
Gretchen Sierra-Zorita is an advisor to the Boricua Decide 2012 initiative.