Eligible for the first time, 21-year-old Valerie Figueroa will vote in the presidential election this November, joining a throng of Hispanic voters who may make a difference in the outcome of the race in Florida and possibly the nation.
Since 2000, Florida's Hispanic population has grown by more than 477,000, according to census figures released today. That puts the number of Hispanics at 3,160,287, representing 18.5 percent of the state's population of 17-million and about 14 percent of its eligible voters.
In 2000, Hispanics made up 16.7 percent of Florida's population.
Figueroa, a telecommunications production major at the University of Florida, said she considers herself as an independent voter, choosing to vote for a candidate rather than a party. She said she supports Democrat John Kerry in the presidential race, but plans to vote for Republican Mel Martinez in the U.S. Senate race.
"What Bush has done has not proven to be effective whatsoever," said Figueroa, of Kissimmee. "The majority of my friends are pro-Kerry, too."
Figueroa, who is active in both Hispanic and Puerto Rican student groups, said she'll vote for Martinez because he is Hispanic.
She said the increasing number of Hispanics in Florida will translate into political power. "We are growing and we want change. As we grow, our impact on elections will grow along with us," she said.
Joseph Agostini, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida, said the importance of the Hispanic vote is evident in the amount of money both parties have spent on media buys seeking their votes.
"They will be vital to a victory in November," he said.
The Pew Hispanic Center in Washington said the number of Hispanic voters nationwide will have increased by about 20 percent, to 16-million, when compared with the 2000 presidential election.
In Florida, 44 percent of Hispanic voters are naturalized citizens, but Florida-born Hispanics account for 83 percent of newly eligible Hispanic voters, Pew said in a report, "The Hispanic Electorate in 2004."
Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, said it is hard to assess the impact of Hispanic voters in Florida.
"It really depends on who votes," he said, noting that Cuban voters in the Miami area have traditionally voted for Republicans in national and congressional elections.
The forced removal of Elian Gonzalez from the Miami home of his Cuban relatives brought Cuban voters to the polls in record numbers to vote for President Bush in 2000 because they were unhappy with the Clinton-Gore administration's handling of the case that returned the boy to Cuba, Suro said.
"The share of the Republicans who voted was historically high," Suro said.
In Central Florida, the growing Puerto Rican community has traditionally cast its ballots for Democrats.
Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties have seen an average 24 percent increase in the number of Hispanics from 2000 to July 2003.
Nationally, Hispanics traditionally have favored the Democratic Party in presidential elections, but that support has declined in recent years.
In 1996, 72 percent of Hispanics voted to re-elect President Clinton, while 21 percent voted for Republican Bob Dole.
Four years later, Democrat Al Gore won 62 percent of the Hispanic vote and Bush picked up 35 percent.
Stan Smith, director of the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research, predicts that over the next 25 years, Florida's Hispanic population will outpace the state's non-Hispanic white and black populations, largely because of migration and high birth rates.
The Cuban share of Florida's Hispanic population is declining, Smith said. "Twenty years ago they made up more than half of the state's Hispanics; now it's down to 31 percent."
pop. 2000 2003 Increase
Miami-Dade 1,301,861 1,415,772 8.7%
Broward 276,589 349,344 26.0%
Hillsborough 182,523 216,793 19.0%
Orange 171,441 204,655 19.0%
Palm Beach 143,050 180,810 26.0%
pop. 2000 2003 Increase
Citrus 3,154 3,811 21.0%
Hernando 6,690 8,981 34.0%
Pasco 20,007 27,382 37.0%
Pinellas 43,294 51,542 19.0%
On the Web:
Census Bureau: www.census.gov
University of Florida Bureau of Economic
and Business Research: www.bebr.ufl.edu
Pew Hispanic Center: www.pewhispanic.org