ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Since she was a little girl, Kaisha Toledo dreamed of voting for president, a civic act she couldn’t do while growing up in Puerto Rico.
After she moved to the Orlando area two years ago, registering to vote was among the first thing she did, and she is prepared to pick a U.S. president for the first time next month. Puerto Ricans can chose candidates in the presidential primaries but not in the general election for president since the island is a territory, not a state.
In Florida, she isn’t alone.
Florida has gained 929,327 registered voters since the last presidential election, according to voter registration data released late Friday.
About 39 percent of that gain came from Hispanics, who as a group traditionally underperform for their numbers at the ballot box.
Hispanics make up just under a quarter of Florida’s population of 20 million residents, but as of Oct. 18, they were 16 percent of registered voters.
They’ve made significant strides from the last presidential race in 2012, when they represented only a little more than 13.5 percent of registered voters.
“We can vote in primaries, but that is it,” Toledo, a behavioral therapist, said of voting in Puerto Rico. “To have that opportunity to vote for president now is a dream since I was a little girl learning about presidents and history.”
The biggest voter-registration gains have been along the Interstate 4 corridor, where tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have settled in the last several years since the island’s economy soured. In fact, almost half of the new numbers of registered voters came from the corridor stretching from Tampa to Orlando to Daytona Beach and the Space Coast.
Since the last presidential election, Florida has gained a little more than 475,000 Hispanics, and a third were Puerto Rican.
Florida’s Puerto Rican population is now about even with New York’s as the largest on the mainland. The state’s more than 1 million Puerto Ricans are catching up to Cubans, with a population of 1.4 million residents, as the state’s largest Hispanic group.
Voter registration groups and get-out-the vote efforts have been aggressive in courting central Florida’s Puerto Ricans. They’ve knocked on tens of thousands of doors and set up boxes with vote-by-mail applications in small businesses like Valisa Bakery in Orlando.
“They are indeed a part of the rising non-Cuban Hispanic voters in the state,” said Beatriz Lopez, communications director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a Washington-based progressive, nonpartisan policy institute. “We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this population.”
That’s because many Puerto Ricans who arrive in Florida aren’t necessarily attuned to the binary politics of Democrats and Republicans, particularly when it comes to presidential races. Political parties on the island are, for the most part, based on support for the island’s independence, statehood or commonwealth status.
African-American voters in Florida registered overwhelmingly as Democrats. White voters leaned Republican, and Asian voters preferred no party affiliation.
Hispanic voters leaned Democratic but were well-represented among voters with no party affiliation.
Since the last president election in 2012, the GOP gained 304,320 Florida voters, the Democrats added 95,771 to their roles and those with no party affiliation jumped by 517,028. Democrats now account for 38 percent of all Florida voters. Republicans make up 35 percent, and those with no party affiliation are 24 percent of the electorate.
The biggest gains for no-party-affiliation voters were in Florida’s largest metro areas: Miami, Tampa and Orlando. The biggest gains for Democrats were along the I-4 corridor, and the largest gains for Republicans were around The Villages retirement community and the Tampa and Fort Myers areas.
Two week ago, Toledo encouraged her husband and stepson to register to vote by computer.
“Now the whole family gets to vote,” she said.
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