HARTFORD, Conn. /January 31, 2018(AP)(STL.News)— As advocates prepare efforts register hurricane-displaced Puerto Ricans to vote in the U.S. mainland, the chief elections officer in Connecticut is putting the weight of her office behind drives to sign up as many eligible newcomers as possible.
Residents of the Caribbean island are U.S. citizens, but they are barred from voting for president unless they are registered in the U.S. mainland.
Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, a Democrat, said Wednesday that her office will work with local governments and community groups to identify and register those eligible to vote. She said registration is important for civic engagement and to give the newcomers a say in public affairs, including the federal government’s relief work on the island.
“We all know there has been much discussion about how much more needs to be done,” Merrill said at a news conference.
Thousands of Puerto Ricans have relocated to the U.S. mainland since Hurricane Maria devastated the island in September. An estimated 4,000 have come to Connecticut.
Advocates have been laying plans to register newcomers in states that have taken in large numbers, including Florida in particular, but Merrill said she felt it was important for her office also to be involved. She said her office will work with others to help register voters, provide training to community organizers, and send staff to gatherings of newly arrived families from Puerto Rico.
“Our democracy is strongest when registration is highest,” she said.
New York Board of Elections spokesman John Conklin said it is not involved in such registration drives.
“Typically voter registration drives happen at the local level,” he said. “We’re what you would call a bottom-up state.”
Jared Nordlund, of the advocacy group UnidosUS, said he had not heard of any state committing such assistance for a voter registration drive. He said his group’s efforts to engage the new arrivals have focused on Florida, where they are also emphasizing voter education.
“The elections here Florida are run very differently than in Puerto Rico. It’s important they understand what they look like,” he said.
The concept of Republican versus Democrat is relatively foreign on the island, where the main political parties are defined by their stance on the relationship to the U.S., but Puerto Rican voters on the mainland tilt Democratic.
Connecticut State Rep. Hilda Santiago, a Meriden Democrat, said the hope is that newcomers will bring the same enthusiasm that’s shown for elections on the island, where turnout can exceed 90 percent.
“We have to engage them,” she said. “We have to make sure they feel comfortable, they trust the system, they don’t feel intimidated.”
Merrill said it is unknown how many new arrivals from Puerto Rico have registered or attempted to register to vote.