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A small meeting, a big challenge: Getting Hispanic voters to register and vote

A group gathers at La Teresita restaurant in West Tampa, like groups across Florida, to find ways of growing turnout.
Wilfred Benitez is Tampa coordinator for Mi Familia Vota, a nonprofit working in six states to get out the vote among Hispanic citizens. In Hillsborough County, a growing number of Hispanic voters are registering with no party preference. [JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times]
Related: Click here to read this story in Spanish

TAMPA — Around a table at La Teresita restaurant in West Tampa, a half-dozen people gathered earlier this month to share ideas on how to involve more Hispanics in the 2020 Census and the presidential election.

It may be one of the most important conversations of the political season.

All across Florida, non-partisan groups, party leaders and presidential campaigns are having similar meetings, hoping to grow the number of Hispanic voters or to tap into them for victory at the ballot box.

Florida Hispanics are a target because they account for a bigger share of registered voters in Florida than ever before, at 16 percent. The number of Hispanic registered voters has grown three times as fast as registered voters overall, according to Pew Research Center data reported in October 2018.

What’s more, the loyalties of Hispanic voters today are seen as up for grabs as rising numbers register with no party affiliation. In Hillsborough County, the breakdown of registered Hispanic voters is 67,200 Democrats, 58,500 with no party affiliation and 28,700 Republicans, according to the Supervisor of Elections Office.

Increasing those numbers was the focus of the meeting at La Teresita, where Wilfred Benitez described plans for a full-court press by Mi Familia Vota — a nonprofit that works in six states to get out the Hispanic vote.

“The biggest challenge is how to motivate the Latino community, including our younger population, to be part of this crucial process in the 2020 election,” said Benitez, the group’s local coordinator. “The candidates will need to focus and talk about issues to draw the attention of the Hispanic voters.”

Topping the list of issues are health care, jobs and immigration, according to a 2019 survey of eligible Hispanic voters by the polling firm Latino Decisions.

Starting in April, when funding becomes available, Mi Familia Vota will hire local organizers and office staff and fan out across Hillsborough County, to shopping centers, churches and public events like a recent Community Resource Fair at Jefferson High School in Tampa.

Benitez shared his ideas on outreach with Lydia Medrano, local director of the League of United Latin American Citizens; Johanna Mangiocco, recruiting assistant for the U.S. Census Bureau; attorney John R. O’Connor; and William C. Guerra, a retired teacher and voter registration volunteer.

They discussed the unique challenges they face.

For one, only about half of Florida’s Hispanic population is eligible to vote — the lowest share of any ethnic population — because many are not citizens and a disproportionate number are younger than the minimum voting age of 18.

Then there’s voter turnout, lower among Hispanics than other groups.

And in particular, they need to find ways to motivate a single population — the Puerto Ricans who make up a growing share of Florida’s Hispanic population as the island territory is buffeted by economic and natural disasters.

The numbers show what’s at stake in Hillsborough. Hispanics make up 27 percent of the county population, according to data from the U.S. Census released in 2018. Puerto Ricans account for 8 percent of the county total, followed by Cubans at 6 percent and Mexicans at 5 percent.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but cannot vote for president if they live in Puerto Rico. They can if they move to the United States, as long as they register to vote.

In central Florida, groups such as Alianza for Progress and the Hispanic Federation have launched voter registration drives focusing on the Puerto Rican community.

In Hillsborough, a number of groups are planning broader Hispanic registration efforts, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, Mi Familia Vota and UnidosUS, with its national campaign, Adelante: Moving Us Forward.

The focus for Benitez and Mi Familia Vota is the fall election, not the Florida presidential primary on March 17. The deadline to register to vote in the primary is Tuesday.

But the political parties are not waiting.

The Florida Democratic Party has hired a dozen Spanish-speaking staff members in the Interstate 4 corridor alone, part of an overall staff of 98 statewide, said Luisana Pérez Fernández, the state party’s Hispanic media director. They are building volunteer teams in majority-Hispanic voting precincts and on college campuses.

“Our field team is making sure that Latino communities understand that Democrats match their values on jobs, healthcare, and climate change,” Pérez said, “and we are working to register tens of thousands of Hispanic voters before the start of the general election season in July 2020.”

With half a dozen Democratic candidates still campaigning in the early primary states, few have turned their attention to Florida yet. But the Joe Biden campaign announced Wednesday the formation of grassroots groups in the Sunshine State aimed at reaching a variety of voters, including Hispanics.

Maria Jose Chapa helps open a Hispanic Federation field office in Davenport to encourage greater participation in the electoral process among Hispanics, including central Florida's growing Puerto Rican population. [CHRIS O'MEARA | AP]

Republicans already know who will lead their ticket. The Donald Trump campaign has held some 40 events for Hispanic voters across Florida and a dozen swing states, said Danielle Álvarez, spokeswoman.

"President Trump’s promises kept, coupled with our top-notch ground game reflective of all communities in the Sunshine State, will ensure he wins again in November,” Álvarez said.

The campaign offers training for volunteers in English and Spanish through its Trump Victory Leadership Initiative. The group Latinos for Trump was registering voters during the Conga Caliente festival at Al Lopez Park in Tampa back in November.

“Registration remains critical," said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, a deputy vice president with Washington, D.C.-based UnidosUS.

Still, she added, “Even among those registered, candidates and parties often do not reach out to Latino voters. We are seeing some increased outreach from candidates this election, but much remains to be done.”

Members of the Hispanic community shared ideas last week about the Census and the upcoming elections at La Teresita restaurant in West Tampa. From left to right: attorney John R. O'Connor, Lydia Medrano, Florida Director District 1 Tampa Bay, Delma Rodríguez, Education Committee Chair LULAC Tampa Bay and Edgardo A. Agrait Comas. [JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times]

Medrano, who organized the meeting at La Teresita, said the change will come by getting more people to the polls: “Our vote is our voice."