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Hispanic voter registration on the rise

Maria Alexandra Perez, 24, has never voted before. She might not have this year, either, but for a group that stopped her at an Orlando shopping center and persuaded her to register.

"Hispanics have to vote so people can see we are trying to progress," Perez said.

She is not alone. Since the last presidential election, registration among Hispanics has grown at three times the rate of other voters in Orange and Osceola counties. In Orange County, the total number of Hispanic registered voters has nearly doubled.

Other Central Florida counties have not compiled statistics on Hispanic voters.

At least two local voting drives aim to increase Hispanic registration even more in Central Florida.

Latino Vote USA Campaign '96, a national program that began in October, launched an Orlando area voting drive in June. With one student intern and 18 volunteers, the campaign has registered 300 new voters so far.

A separate volunteer campaign, called the National Association for Hispanic Affairs, has been getting out the vote in Central Florida for more than a year. President Alex Lamour is concerned that participation remains low for Hispanics, who number more than 100,000 in Central Florida.

While Hispanic voter turnout is lower than that of the general population, participation has been increasing nationwide, according to the Tomas Rivera Center, an institute in Austin, Texas, that studies Hispanic issues. In 1994, Hispanics made up 3.9 percent of the nation's voters, up from 2.6 percent in 1980, the center said.

Nearly 26,000 Hispanics are registered to vote in Orange County, compared with an adult population of 70,000, according to a 1996 estimate by Claritas Inc., a demographics company.

Advocates say the especially sharp growth among Hispanics probably is the result of voting campaigns and a growing population. But mainly they credit a growing number of issues that Hispanics believe could directly affect them, from English-only laws to welfare reform that would cut aid for new immigrants. These issues also are credited with motivating people to apply for citizenship; new citizens, in turn, tend to be more active voters.

"They see that this sometimes isn't going to be in their best interest, and they want to voice their opinion," said Rudy Lopez, a field director for Latino Vote USA in Washington. "That's just made things easier for us."