Including newly arrived Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens but can’t vote in midterms on the island
Nearly every morning since April, a group of eight canvassers have met in a small Orlando office before hitting the streets. They start with some roleplay for practice and to fire each other up, then head out to make sure every eligible citizen in the area is registered to vote.
“We do roleplays and talk about why we do this work,” says Carolina Wassmer, the Central Florida Regional Coordinator for UnidosUS’s Civic Engagement team. Carolina has been campaigning and canvassing since 2012. “We talk about how important it is to educate the community and make sure they’re prepared.”
Thanks to this method of in-person engagement and other initiatives, UnidosUS has registered more than 600,000 new voters in the past 10 years. In Florida alone, this small team of eight is part of a larger group that has registered more than 48,000 people since April.
The canvassers have informed tens of thousands of new voters about the issues and helped them empower themselves to vote next month. For those who haven’t met a canvasser, UnidosUS’s Power of 18 campaign helps anyone eligible register in just a couple minutes.
PUERTO RICANS COULD TURN THE TIDE
Many of the people the team has registered this year will be voting in a midterm election for the first time. Some because they’re just learning of the importance of midterm elections, but others because they haven’t been allowed to vote in midterms before.
The thousands of Puerto Ricans who have settled in Central Florida after Hurricane Maria were able to vote in presidential elections, but because of the lack of traditional representation (Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and has no official representation in Congress), the island never votes for senators or representatives.
“The recently arrived from Puerto Rico are especially excited to vote,” Carolina says. “They say ‘Oh yeah, this is important. Now I finally get a say on the mainland.’”
The passion that Puerto Ricans have for voting in a midterm is coupled with some challenges that show how differently the system works on the island. Some of the people the canvassers register don’t affiliate themselves with a party when they register, unaware that they won’t be able to vote in Florida primaries.
Even lifelong Floridians are voting based on how candidates speak about Puerto Rico. After the Trump administration shrugged off the devastation of Hurricane Maria, voters want to make sure they vote for the candidates who will do right by those who don’t have the benefit of full representation.
After a traumatizing year, Puerto Ricans are ready to show what they think about how they’ve been treated. “Puerto Ricans are definitely keeping an eye out on these elections,” Carolina says. “They’re going to make their voices heard.”
‘BUT I JUST VOTED!’
The canvassers have been met mostly with excitement. And where there hasn’t been excitement, they haven’t been met with apathy, but with confusion.
“A lot of people are like, ‘Oh I just voted,’ or ‘What election are you talking about?’” Carolina says. Some of the people who register, especially the recently arrived, aren’t used to voting every two years. And since the team started early in the year, people aren’t expecting to be approached. “They say ‘How is there another election? I just voted!’” Carolina says.
Once the canvassers talk about the importance of midterm elections, especially this year’s gubernatorial race, people typically get as excited as they would during a presidential election.
“People are really positive and happy to see us out there doing this work,” Carolina says. “They’re not expecting to see us out here since it’s not a presidential year. That’s been the best part. People have been really receptive.”
The passion that the team brings to their person-to-person interactions helps show new voters the importance of their decision. The team’s goal isn’t just to raise the number of voters, but to raise the number of informed voters.
“It’s more than just voting,” Carolina says.
“We teach our canvassers to highlight what elections are coming up and why it’s important that they vote. To me, people just don’t know, so they don’t participate because they feel like they don’t know enough to vote. But we’re out there educating the community, and that gets more people involved. They say, ‘Oh this isn’t so scary. Now that I understand who’s who and what’s what, I feel more confident in participating.’”
Florida’s deadline for registering was October 9. Carolina and the rest of the team were out up until the last second making sure that as many people as possible know what’s at stake next month. Because of their hard work, the canvassing team was able to surpass their registration goal of 45,000 new voters by more than 3,000—ensuring that come November 6, more of our community can be heard at the polls.
Voter registration deadlines in several states have already passed, but there may still be time for you to get registered if you’re not already. Make sure you’re registered and know where your polling place is before Election Day by checking here or with your state’s Department of Elections.
By John Marth, UnidosUS Senior Content Specialist