A new nonpartisan group wants to register 50,000 Hispanics to vote in Florida, a development that could affect the presidential and Senate races in this election year.
BY OSCAR CORRAL
In a state where Hispanics already hold considerable political influence, a new nonpartisan voter outreach group is embarking on an ambitious drive to put 50,000 more Hispanics on the voting rolls before November.
The statewide registration drive could have a significant political impact in a state that decided the 2000 presidential election by a little more than 500 votes, and where Hispanics are a key swing group.
It could also affect the political parties' primary-election races for the U.S. Senate nomination, both of which include Cuban-American candidates.
The group, called Mi Familia Vota (My Family Votes), is partnering with MTV's Choose or Lose and Rock the Vote initiatives, local media and several well-known leaders across the state to get the word out.
It is also sending canvassers door to door across South and Central Florida and the Tampa Bay area.
Campaign spokesmen for President Bush and likely Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry both say that Mi Familia Vota could have a strong influence in Florida.
''Florida is going to be one of the most competitive states in the country again this year, and every single vote will matter,'' Kerry campaign spokesman Mark Kornblau said. ``An effort like this can have an extraordinary impact on the election, not just in Florida but throughout the country.''
A poll conducted for the group by pollster Sergio Bendixen determined that about one-third of Hispanic U.S. citizens in Florida, up to 400,000 people, are not registered to vote.
''This is about Hispanic empowerment,'' said Jorge Mursuli, Florida director of People for the American Way Foundation, who is spearheading the project. ``This community is completely up for grabs.''
To register the voters, the group first has to find them, which may prove difficult. But organizers say the Bendixen poll is a good start, providing a demographic snapshot of this politically promising group of citizens.
''It's like finding a needle in a haystack,'' Mursuli said.
According to the poll, most unregistered Hispanics live in Miami-Dade County and the biggest group is of South American origin, not Cuban or Puerto Rican as conventional wisdom might assume.
Bendixen said it was one of the most difficult polls he has ever conducted -- taking a month, when it should have taken a week. In the end, he interviewed 600 people for the sample, which has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.
He started by randomly choosing people with Hispanic names from phone books around the state, then calling them and asking whether they considered themselves Hispanics, whether they were citizens, and whether they were registered to vote.
While polls show that Hispanics nationwide tend to favor the Democratic Party and are more likely to vote for Kerry, the leaders of Mi Familia Vota don't want to speculate on which party or candidates their drive may help politically.
Also, Florida's Hispanic vote is less predictable because of the large number of Cuban-American voters, who heavily support President Bush.
In a little more than a month, the group has registered about 4,000 Hispanics. In keeping with the nonpartisan spirit of the drive, Mursuli did not want to disclose which party had benefited more so far. But he said the majority were independents.
Mi Familia Vota is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, People for the American Way, the Center for Immigrant Democracy and other private donors, Mursuli said.
Both the Bush and Kerry campaigns feel that the effort could help them.
''Anytime that voter turnout is increased, I think Kerry is helped,'' Kerry spokesman Kornblau said. ``Particularly among Hispanic Americans, John Kerry's support is very strong.''
Bush campaign spokeswoman Sharon Castillo said any effort to increase Hispanic participation in the political process was welcome.
''We are going to be working really hard to win their hearts and minds,'' Castillo said. ``We are confident that the more they learn about president Bush's policies . . . the more their support will follow.''
According to the poll, most unregistered Hispanics, 81 percent, prefer to speak Spanish. The bulk of them, 31 percent, live in Miami-Dade County; 21 percent live in the Orlando area, 16 percent in Broward County and 19 percent in Palm Beach County.
About 30 percent are from South America, 20 percent are Cuban, 14 percent are Central American, 13 percent are Mexican, and 11 percent are either Puerto Rican or Dominican.
Most have children living at home, have lived in Florida for less than 10 years and own their homes.
Many have felt discriminated against at some point because of their ethnicity, and strongly support minimum-wage increases, more spending on public schools, and legalization of undocumented immigrants.
''This will have a national implication,'' political consultant Fred Balsera, who is working with Mi Familia Vota, said of the registration drive. ``The attention of the entire world is on Florida and Florida's Hispanics. We have to capitalize on that opportunity.''