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Could a Post-Hurricane Exodus From Puerto Rico Impact Presidential Politics?

It’s a source of great frustration for many Puerto Ricans: They’re American citizens, but their votes count far less in national politics than the votes of Americans on the mainland. While residents of the island can vote in presidential primaries, they can’t elect voting members of the House or Senate, and don’t get any electoral votes.

One simple way for a Puerto Rican to change that? Move to the mainland.

After Hurricane Maria tore through the island and left a humanitarian crisis in its wake, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said that unless a proper aid package was passed, “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Puerto Ricans seeking refuge” could move to states like Florida, New York, and Texas.

Puerto Ricans moving to the 50 states is nothing new; it’s one of the rights that come with citizenship. The heavily indebted island lost nearly 7% of its population between 2010 and 2015 as its economy worsened. But the humanitarian crisis could accelerate the trend dramatically—which could have a sizable impact on local, and even national, politics.

Take Florida, where Donald Trump beat out Hillary Clinton by an election-deciding 112,911-vote margin. The state is likely to draw large numbers of people leaving Puerto Rico, thanks to its job market and readily available housing (relative to, say, New York). Its proximity to Florida has already made it an easy choice for relocating islanders, and the state elected its first congressman of Puerto Rican descent last year.

The arrival of 100,000 people from Puerto Rico probably wouldn’t have swung the election to Clinton, but it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario where those new votes could be pivotal. One way to think about it: If 100,000 people came, 30,000 of them might vote (though this guess could vary widely with age and turnout rates), and 70% might be likely to vote Democratic. That could potentially alter Florida’s politics—particularly down-ballot.

Harvard University’s Jesse M. Keenan, who researches the effects of climate change and rising sea levels on cities, has been tracking the likely impact of this hurricane season on migration. He expects a wave of Puerto Ricans coming to Florida, and thinks it could be large, but says it is probably “not going to tip anything that hasn’t already been tipped.” Still, Keenan also notes that metro areas like Orlando, Jacksonville and Tampa could see a larger impact. Those cities will be particularly attractive to transplants because jobs are relatively plentiful, housing stock is affordable, and city planning and mass transit make many jobs readily accessible.

Politically, Keenan expects to see “some impact at a county level,” and in individual communities. Economically, those cities will “need to plan,” he says, for the wave of displaced people seeking new homes. Gradually, though, the influx of new people and workers are likely to boost cities businesses. “It’s a short-term burden and a long-term advantage,” he says. “In the long term, this shift in population will be to these area’s benefit.”