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Voters In Florida's Puerto Rican Community Shy Away From Party Affiliation

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK, from Colorado to Florida, which is home to one of the nation's fastest-growing groups of independent voters, Latinos, Renata Sago of member station WMFE reports on why many newly arrived Puerto Ricans in central Florida are opting not to register with political parties.

RENATA SAGO, BYLINE: In the packed parking lot of a supermarket in Kissimmee, Jeamy Ramirez and her staff pays toward customers with clipboards in hand.

JEAMY RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

SAGO: Spanish is the common language in this growing county where half the population is Latino. Ramirez is a canvasser with Mi Familia Vota, a voting advocacy group.

RAMIREZ: We got a lot of people from Colombia, Venezuela, but the most is the Puerto Rican right now.

SAGO: In the past year, thousands of Puerto Ricans have left the struggling island for central Florida. Arriving here means two things, being able to vote for president, something they can't do on the island, and having to adjust to a completely different political system.

RAMIREZ: They don't know a lot of the candidate. They start seeing the debate and all this stuff. That's why they put no party affiliation...

SAGO: Ramirez says for new arrivals, primary season is like an introductory class to politics on the mainland. But even Puerto Ricans who have been here a long time choose to stay out of the party system. Sixty-nine-year-old Luz Maria Sanchez has been an independent voter for the past 25 years. And even though the state's closed primary keeps independents from deciding who make it on to the November ballot, Sanchez feels she's not missing out.

MARIA SANCHEZ: They say things just to win the candidate. Republican, they say they're going to fix the country. And Democrat, they follow almost the same, but they go the other way around.

SAGO: But Puerto Ricans are very active in politics in Puerto Rico, says Carlos Vargas-Ramos, a researcher at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York.

CARLOS VARGAS-RAMOS: They pay attention to politics on the news. It is an ever-present topic of conversation. It is a cultural event of sorts.

SAGO: Here in the U.S., Puerto Ricans discover there are more elections, and they're less competitive. Other barriers to voting are language, state rules and a general feeling they're just not included in the issues. Ramos says these issues are similar for other Latinos. Back in the parking lot, Jeamy Ramirez is trying to change that. She's hoping that even if Puerto Ricans don't vote in the primary, they'll turn out in November.

RAMIREZ: We can decide right now the presidential election.

SAGO: For NPR News, I'm Renata Sago in Kissimmee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.