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Pennsylvania boasts one of the largest Puerto Rican populations in the country.
Pennsylvania boasts one of the largest Puerto Rican populations in the country.

The impact of the post-Maria Puerto Rican vote

Amid discontent among Puerto Ricans with the Trump administration, grassroots organizations and the Democratic party are hoping their ramped up organizing…

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Eight months ago, Genesis Ayala Torres fled her hometown of Lajas, Puerto Rico, for Pennsylvania, because of Hurricane Maria.

With her two-year-old daughter, she moved in with her aunt in York, a small town in the south-central part of the state.

“Because of the hurricane I lost everything,” the 20-year-old Torres told AL DÍA. “I had to find some place to move on, and to move my daughter.”

Torres now works with the Latino and immigrant advocacy organization, Casa in Action, where she has helped register voters, and canvassed for Democratic candidates in the run up to today’s midterm elections.

“It’s important for people to go out to vote so we can have a change. [We need] more Hispanic people, because we’re the first people getting called out [by the President],” Torres said.

“I just want us, the Hispanic people, to raise our voice and let him know that we’re not bad people. We’re just trying to get a new life, trying to get our lives together,” she continued.

As voters cast their ballots in today’s midterm elections, left-leaning grassroots organizations and the Democratic Party will get a first look at just how effective their ramped up efforts have been to engage a Puerto Rican community in Pennsylvania that is both unhappy with the Trump administration’s handling of Hurricane Maria relief efforts, and greater in number due to Puerto Ricans relocating to the states following last year's natural disaster.

The Center for Puerto Rican Studies’ ‘One Year After Hurricane Maria’ report, published last month, estimates that more than 160,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to the states to escape the destruction caused by Maria. Pennsylvania has been second only to Florida as a preferred destination for the migrants, the report notes.

By last February, nearly 10,000 Puerto Ricans had already relocated to Pennsylvania, according to the Center, which used school enrollment figures to reach their estimate. In addition to Philadelphia, Puerto Rican refugees have settled in smaller cities in the middle of the state, such as Reading, Allentown and Lancaster.

Left-leaning grassroots organizations - and the Democratic party - have pounced on this development.

“Almost immediately after the hurricane, we went full force into organizing Puerto Ricans who were already here, and then also receiving and assisting refugees who were arriving, registering, at this point, thousands of them,” Adanjesus Marin, the Director of Make the Road PA, and the State Director of its advocacy wing, Make the Road Action PA, told AL DÍA.

This year alone, Make the Road registered nearly 7,000 new primarily Latino voters in Pennsylvania, at least half of whom are Puerto Rican, Marin said. Their ground game has picked up, too.

“Our [advocacy wing] is knocking on 219,000 doors this year. It’s been proven that when community organizations are able to do this type of outreach, that turnout does increase,” he said.

“For instance, in 2016, while, regrettably, Trump won the election and the state, we were able to look at the precincts that we were able to do work in and organize, and they performed 20 percent better than [similar] precincts in the same geography where we were not able to organize because we didn’t have enough capacity,” he continued.

Democrats have also jumped on this demographic development. In an internal memo from August shared with AL DÍA, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) outlines how they have spent $600,000 on their ground game in Pennsylvania, “with a special emphasis on engaging and investing in African American, Puerto Rican and Latino, and rural communities.”

As of August, the DNC had spent $100,000 to put Puerto Rican organizers on the ground, and connect Puerto Ricans to social services, and register them to vote. They additionally claim to have acquired cell phone numbers for “every registered voter across the country for whom a cell phone was commercially available.” Three million of these numbers were acquired in Pennsylvania, 25,000 of which were for Puerto Ricans.

Marin fully expects Puerto Ricans to trend Democrat in the elections.

“What I can say is that the Puerto Rican community is very aware of what party has abandoned the island and the people of Puerto Rico, and blamed the victim, and sat by while thousands of people died,” Marin said.

“Not because of the natural disaster as much as the human disaster of FEMA not responding adequately, and the Trump administration not doing everything it could and should have for the people of Puerto Rico,” he continued.

In a state that President Trump won by only 44,000 votes in 2016, this could prove significant for today’s midterm elections, and looking ahead to 2020.

Amid conflicting reports about what to expect from Latino turnout, Marin said he doesn’t pay the polls too much mind. Instead, he looks at his organization’s door to door canvassing efforts, and the number of registered voters who commit to vote when asked.

“I can guarantee you that [Latinos] are going to turn out at a higher rate than they ever have before,” he said.

According to Torres, it’s the hurricane response efforts by the Trump administration that will drive Puerto Ricans to head to the polls. It will certainly be top of mind for her when she casts her vote.

“From my point of view, they helped Texas and Florida more. They didn’t give us our help. My house didn’t get any help because of one paper. In Puerto Rico, a lot of people got refused help just because of some documents,” she said, referring to FEMA.

“I’m doing this because I want a change in politics, and a change in how politicians take care of the disasters.”

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