Florida should help protect Puerto Ricans’ voting rights

Thousands of Puerto Ricans are headed to the mainland to sit our the destruction in the island. Here a woman holds a ticket to Miami at Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan.
Thousands of Puerto Ricans are headed to the mainland to sit our the destruction in the island. Here a woman holds a ticket to Miami at Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan. Getty Images

Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico 2 weeks ago, creating devastating damage and a humanitarian crisis for 3.5 million U.S. citizens. Today, 88 percent of Puerto Rico’s residents lack electricity, 43 percent lack water, the health care and school systems are in shambles, and over 58 citizens have died, while the president has been throwing paper towels at people and tweeting racist diatribes.

All this is exacerbated by 100 percent of Puerto Ricans lacking equal access to voting rights.

Under the 1917 Jones Act, Puerto Rico’s 3.5 million U.S. citizens do not have voting representatives in Congress, and cannot cast votes for president. The Jones Act was in the news recently, as it restricted non-U.S. ships from docking in Puerto Rico. After being temporarily lifted, the Act’s colonialist shipping restrictions are back in place, limiting access to life-saving supplies.

But little attention has been paid to the fact that the Jones Act also created a second class of citizenship that lacks Congressional representation and the ability to vote in federal elections. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that Puerto Ricans are left without adequate response to the humanitarian crisis. The Jones Act must be fully repealed in order for citizens on the island to have an equal political voice in American democracy.

Here on the mainland, the Puerto Rican diaspora is leading the recovery efforts. The Washington Post recently reported that “Puerto Ricans are a surging, outraged political force in Florida in the aftermath of Maria”— clearly an understatement. Puerto Rico has already sent 60 percent of its population to the mainland, and many more are now fleeing. Florida is home to a million Puerto Ricans who moved there in the past 10 years, and many thousands more will be arriving before the 2018 Congressional elections. Illinois, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, and most of New England also have substantial Puerto Rican populations, and their numbers will dramatically increase in the coming year.

Puerto Ricans residing on the mainland can vote in federal elections. Yet while participation in elections is above 80% on the island, once Puerto Ricans move, their voting rates drop, due in part to barriers to participation caused by voter suppression policies that must be changed. For example, in states requiring photo voter ID, Puerto Rican birth certificates issued prior to 2010 are not accepted to get the identification needed to vote. Post-Maria, it is going to be impossible for the Puerto Rican government to provide enough updated birth certificates so her people may vote. Furthermore, there are costs associated, and no one should pay for an updated photo ID to vote.

In addition to modern-day poll taxes, Puerto Ricans may be subject to modern-day English literacy tests. Section 4(e) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires that Puerto Ricans be provided with bilingual ballots and assistance at the polls, as they are U.S. citizens who have been educated in Spanish. Many jurisdictions are not in compliance. Litigation to enforce Section 4(e) has been successful in certain counties in Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and at the state level in Massachusetts and New York; however, other counties with significant Puerto Rican populations still run English-only elections, and compromise the ability of Puerto Ricans to fully exercise their political power. In these places, recent arrivals from the island have been unable to register to vote because the form is in English only. For those who can register, it can be very difficult to fully understand the ballot and voting instructions in English; yet as U.S. citizens, there is no requirement for Puerto Ricans to learn English in order to vote.

As Puerto Rico’s population is 99 percent Latino with significant Afro-Latino heritage, Trump’s openly white supremacist response to the humanitarian crisis is not surprising. President Trump brags about “doing a great job” in Puerto Rico, failing to notice the elderly and infirm and a generation of children who may not go back to school any time soon. They are why we cannot ignore the need to fight for Puerto Rican voting rights. Without that fight, recovery will be even more difficult.

Katherine Culliton González is Senior Counsel at Demos, a New York-based think tank.