Among government office holders, Puerto Ricans are often represented in close proportion to their numbers as a percent of the voting age population in locations of long standing settlement. Yet given that a lower percent of the Puerto Rican population (along with other Hispanics) than non-Hispanic white voters register to vote in the U.S., this should not necessarily be the case.
What accounts for this contradiction of relatively low voting rates and close-to-even proportional representation? Of course, the increasing population of Puerto Ricans and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which opened doors -- to the voting booths in particular – for all minorities. But also, said Centro researcher Carlos Vargas-Ramos, “concentration.” Which is, ironically, the result of neighborhood segregation.
In concentrated neighborhoods like the New York metropolitan area, for instance, candidates for an office are likely to represent the ethnic makeup of the area. Thus in local elections, it is not rare for a Puerto Rican to be running against another Puerto Rican. Thus, even if only a handful of people vote, a Puerto Rican would win.
Vargas-Ramos, whose research on political and civic engagement of Puerto Ricans is presented in Centro’s new book, Puerto Ricans at the Dawn of the New Millennium, which is now being promoted in a series of book tours, explained the apparent contradiction: “The growth of the Puerto Rican population and their concentration in mostly Northeast cities coincided with the flight of other social groups, most notably non-Hispanic whites, which accentuated the segregated nature of the neighborhoods Puerto Ricans (and African Americans) lived in. Segregation facilitated the creation of legislative districts that contained a ‘majority of minorities’, which resulted in an expansion of political representation in those legislative bodies."
But another paradox raises its head once a person is elected -- the power of incumbency can help keep registration and turnout down. “With lower probabilities of facing a challenge to their incumbency," Vargas-Ramos said, "elected representatives did not see the need or were not motivated enough to mobilize any more voters than were necessary to win their post." "As a result, there exists an environment in which Puerto Ricans residing in districts with Puerto Rican elected officials may not be mobilized, whether by themselves or by others, to turn out to vote." (There are also individual-level characteristics associated with lower voter registration and voter turnout rates, such as lower levels of educational attainment, lower levels of income, and lower involvement in civic associations in which Puerto Ricans are overrepresented.)
"As Puerto Ricans continue to disperse throughout the United States and as their residential segregation diminishes," he warned, “the continued growth of their political representation in legislative bodies will lag until they form compact communities that create a critical mass of voters.” (This statement assumes that the voters are more likely to vote for a Puerto Rican candidate are other Puerto Ricans, or at minimum other Latinos.)
But with dispersion also comes the ability for Puerto Ricans to make a greater impact in statewide and national elections, if they take the opportunity to vote. "Puerto Ricans may represent a crucial component in an electoral coalition that may decide elections," Vargas-Ramos said. “This has been the case of Puerto Ricans in Central Florida, who have contributed to turning a region of the state that leaned towards Republican candidates to one that now tends to lean toward Democratic candidates in statewide and national elections."
In Florida, for example, they contributed 3.8 percent of the votes Barack Obama received -- in a state he won by less than one percent. Who says our votes don’t count?
To purchase a copy of Puerto Ricans at the Dawn of the New Millennium click here.