Organizers push to register more Puerto Ricans in PA ahead of elections

Organizers from several groups outside a church in North Philadelphia for a voter outreach event targeting Puerto Rican residents, immigrants, and formerly incarcerated individuals to give them information on voting rights. (Zachariah Hughes/WHYY)

Organizers from several groups outside a church in North Philadelphia for a voter outreach event targeting Puerto Rican residents, immigrants, and formerly incarcerated individuals to give them information on voting rights. (Zachariah Hughes/WHYY)

A coalition of groups is trying to mobilize a potential voting bloc they say has been overlooked in Pennsylvania politics: Puerto Ricans.

Gilberto Gonzalez is a community activist who helped organize the event “Su Voto es su Vos!” On Saturday, he and other volunteers were camped outside a church in North Philadelphia, trying to draw people to a table to sign up to vote or arrange for a mail-in ballot.

“We’ve spoken to so many people,” Gonzalez said, estimating that in three hours they had signed up about 30 voters. He and others were also walking nearby streets to reach out to more residents. And a second location was doing the same by another church in Kensington. They are also providing voting information for people who have been held in prison, as well as for immigrants.

Gonzalez, who grew up in Philadelphia and lives in Kensington, is part of a national push to register Puerto Ricans who have immigrated to the mainland U.S. since Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017. According to research by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, 202,790 residents of the island moved to the mainland in the year after Maria. The biggest share of them were living in Florida. But Pennsylvania was the second most common destination, with an estimated 31,870 more Puerto Rican residents in 2018 compared to the year before.

“That’s a lot of people that can vote,” Gonzalez said. “And in this process, one of the things we discovered is recent immigrants from Puerto Rico, they’re not aware that they can vote here.”

Though residents of the island are U.S. citizens, the territory does not factor into the electoral college that determines presidential elections.

Other partner groups in the outreach are the ACLU, Philly Boricuas, Red Brick Committee, West Kensington Ministry, and Party for Socialism and Liberation.

Organizers say they will be holding similar get-out-the-vote efforts each month until the deadline for voter registration in October. But Gonzalez said the aim is to organize a constituency beyond just the general election, one that can exercise muscle in local and state electoral politics.

“I think we need to, in this election, make people aware that we are a large community, Puerto Ricans and Latinos,” Gonzalez said.

He believes the city needs an agenda that better serves Puerto Rican and Latino residents, including better schools, more resources, and housing measures that prevent displacement of long-time residents through gentrification.

“They really need to know that our vote is going to count this time,” Gonzalez added.

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