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Puerto Rican vote becomes essential as early voting begins in Florida, a battleground state

VICTORIA MOLL-RAMIREZ, IMTIYAZ DELAWALA, BRENDAN RAND and HALEY YAMADA
·5-min read

When Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico in a dump of economic, emotional and physical disaster in 2017, Maria Baez left with her grandson, Daniel, for Kissimmee, Florida. Now, three years later, and weeks before one of the country's most important elections, she's still fighting for a better quality of life.

"To have my grandson say, 'Grandma, I'm thirsty,' and to not have any cold water to give him, that was one of the reasons why I decided I had to leave Puerto Rico," said Baez.

Daniel, who is 8 years old and has special needs, struggles to walk on his own. So for Baez, a first-time voter, the need for better health care is what is driving her to support Joe Biden and fill out her ballot on Election Day.

"I see him as a politician who wants to fight for the United States, who can provide us with both health care and personal benefits, and someone who can help us move forward and have a better quality of life," she said.

PHOTO: Maria Baez left Puerto Rico in 2017 with her grandson, Daniel, and now lives in Kissimmee, Fla. (ABC News)
PHOTO: Maria Baez left Puerto Rico in 2017 with her grandson, Daniel, and now lives in Kissimmee, Fla. (ABC News)

Early voting began in the Sunshine State Monday, and Hispanic voters are on track to become the largest minority voting bloc. Roughly 2.4 million Latinos registered to vote in Florida, making up a record-breaking 12% of the state's total voters, according to the Pew Research Center.

PHOTO: Voters fill out their ballots as they vote at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center polling station on Oct. 19, 2020, in Miami. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Voters fill out their ballots as they vote at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center polling station on Oct. 19, 2020, in Miami. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

But the political beliefs in the state -- even among Hispanics -- are as diverse as its Latino population.

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Margie Santos, who was born in Puerto Rico, moved from New York to Florida this year. Like Baez, she is a first-time voter.

"I am voting for Donald J. Trump. He is the best candidate for us right now. He stands for everything that we believe in as conservatives, as Christians pro-life," Santos told ABCNL. "Nobody's perfect, so we can't focus on that. We got to focus on the action, and what he's doing for our country."

PHOTO:  First-time voter Margie Santos said she is voting for President Trump in Florida. (ABC News)
PHOTO: First-time voter Margie Santos said she is voting for President Trump in Florida. (ABC News)

Santos is working with two groups, Latinos for Trump and Republican Chicas, to drive turnout to this year's presidential election.

There is a growing push to mobilize Puerto Rican voters along what is known as the 1-4 corridor, a hotly contested stretch of highway which runs from Daytona Beach to Tampa and spans across central Florida.

"It's sort of a purple area, right? So people go back and forth between Democrat and Republican," said Dr. Fernando Rivera, a professor at the University of Central Florida.

PHOTO: Dr. Fernando Rivera is a professor at the University of Central Florida. (ABC News)
PHOTO: Dr. Fernando Rivera is a professor at the University of Central Florida. (ABC News)

Rivera has been tracking the movement of Puerto Ricans to the area for more than 10 years. Even though Puerto Ricans who live in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, they cannot vote in U.S. elections. That changes once they move to one of the 50 states.

Helping Puerto Ricans navigate the Democratic process are groups like Latino Justice. The group provides resources and combats misinformation.

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"So right now we have a campaign on the way, it's called, 'Pa' Luego Es Tarde,' which loosely translates to 'The Sooner The Better.' And the aim of this campaign is to reach Latino voters in Florida in Spanish, but particularly Latino voters who live in rural areas that don't necessarily get the same attention," said Ricardo Negron of Orlando's Latino Justice.

PHOTO: Ricardo Negron is helping Puerto Ricans navigate the Democratic process with group Latino Justice. (ABC News)
PHOTO: Ricardo Negron is helping Puerto Ricans navigate the Democratic process with group Latino Justice. (ABC News)

Negron specifically mentioned the harmful disinformation that's surrounded voting by mail this year. "We want to make sure that people down here in Florida know it has been happening for years," he said. "It's not something that has been implemented because of COVID."

Rivera said that while polling numbers are important for candidates, focusing on Latino voter turnout is what will translate into votes. "[Turnout] would be the game changer in a state where everything is so close," he said.

In the last six election cycles, no candidate has won the White House without winning Florida. In 2016, President Donald Trump won the state by just over 100,000 voters. This year, both candidates have already poured millions of dollars into Spanish language ads.

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Earlier this month, Florida was the first state Trump visited after his recovery from COVID-19. In September, his administration announced a nearly $13 billion disaster relief fund for Puerto Rico -- three years after Hurricane Maria killed at least 3,000 people.

Puerto Rican voter Thomas Ward is a restaurant owner in southeast Orlando. After being forced to close one of his restaurants and lay off 20 members of his staff due to the coronavirus, he said this election he is voting for the candidate who can control the pandemic.

PHOTO: Undecided voter Thomas Ward is a restaurant owner in Southeast Orlando, Fla. (ABC News)
PHOTO: Undecided voter Thomas Ward is a restaurant owner in Southeast Orlando, Fla. (ABC News)

With just 15 days until Nov. 3, Ward is still undecided. "[Trump] shoots from the hip and he creates a frenzy. And that's one of the situations that I dislike about that," he said. "But [Biden is] pushing for some situations where, for example, $15 an hour [minimum wage]. That's a really tough situation to push right now in a bad economy."

MORE: Election 2020: How to fill out your mail ballot correctly and avoid having it rejected

Ward told ABC News that while the presidential election is important, in order to move forward, there needs to be leadership in Washington across the board.

"At this point, right now, what we need is just leadership as a whole, not only in the presidential situation, but in Congress and in the House to make decisions so that we can move the country forward," he said.

ABC News' Penelope Lopez contributed to this report.

Puerto Rican vote becomes essential as early voting begins in Florida, a battleground state originally appeared on abcnews.go.com