Puerto Ricans voting in Puerto Rico vs. the U.S. mainland: A Philadelphia case-study
Philadelphia’s District 7 is known as ‘El Barrio’ for its predominant Hispanic population. The largest portion of that population hails from Puerto Rico, where Election Day is celebrated like a holiday and turnout is massive. But District 7 has the city’s lowest voter turnout rate.
“I don’t understand it. Puerto Ricans come out to vote in droves on the island, but when they get here, they don’t do anything,”
This is a quote heard at the polls in Philadelphia’s District 7 on May 21. It was primary day in the city and one for its registered voters to nominate their candidates for the general elections in November.
According to November 2018 statistics from the PA Department of State, there are just over one million registered voters in Philadelphia county, giving it the highest population of registered voters of any county in the state of Pennsylvania. Only 23 percent of them voted in the primaries on May 21.
23 percent is also the same amount of registered Puerto Ricans who voted in the island’s most recent referendum on June 11, 2017. That was a historically-low voter turnout attributed to the boycott of the Popular Democratic Party (PPD)—one of the two major political parties in Puerto Rico.
Before the 23 percent showing in 2017, the prior referendum in 2012 brought 77 percent of all the voters to participate, and before a dip to 55 percent in the 2016 quadrennial elections, turnout for them in 2012 was also in the high 70s.
In a 2012 Slate article profiling Puerto Rico’s voting fervor, columnist Sasha Issenberg cited how “throughout the late 20th century, turnout for Puerto Rico’s quadrennial elections [governor, senate, chamber of representatives, mayor] was 50 percent higher than it was for presidential contests in the 50 states.”
Issenberg roots the big turnouts surrounding elections to Puerto Rico’s “culture of engagement,” Puerto Rican analysts call it something different.
“The ‘culture of the vote’ is so expansive that on the island election day is a national holiday, when everyone takes off from work,” wrote Issenberg.
In the U.S., election days are declared civic holidays in 11 states—PA is not one of them—but even so, it rarely results in a day off for more than government workers like in Puerto Rico. Most just offer a couple hours of paid or unpaid leave to vote in line with other states where it is not a declared holiday.
Another thing to also consider in the case of Philadelphia is that the elections on May 21 were a primary. Primary elections are not held when Election Day traditionally falls, but months before and on different days depending on the state.
No state declares civic holidays for primary days and many—including Pennsylvania—also require a party affiliation to even participate. This adds to the de-emphasis on voting found in the U.S. that is in stark contrast to the “culture of vote” cited by Issenberg.
When Puerto Ricans come from the island to the U.S., they are leaving that culture of civic engagement and coming to one that stresses an American Dream. It’s not to say that the American dream is negative—millions come to the U.S. every year to achieve it—but it breeds a culture of individuality that rarely considers the plural over the singular, especially in politics.
Philadelphia District 7’s winning candidate, incumbent Maria Quiñones-Sánchez—a Puerto Rican—will enter her fourth term representing the district on City Council, but her tenure and spot on City Hall’s Appropriations committee have her speculated as a candidate in 2023 mayoral elections—a symbolic move up the ladder for the councilwoman.
Her ambition goes hand-in-hand with the many Puerto Rican residents of her district working for both their own and their family’s survival and progress. But there is a disconnect in the category and level of both Quiñones-Sánchez and her Puerto Rican constituents' individual pursuits. That disconnect, in combination with the lack of time does not garner enthusiasm and support, especially in the voting booth.