Dems were losing Latino voters in FL—how two young innovators turned that around

Devon Murphy-Anderson and Alex Berrios on the road with their grassroots voter registration organization, Mi Vecino. Courtesy Photo: Mi Vecino

By Bonnie Fuller

January 19, 2024

Alex Berrios and Devon Murphy-Anderson had a new idea for registering Florida’s Latinos. But once Ron DeSantis saw it working, he took aim with a ruthless voter suppression law.

As a little boy growing up in an abusive home in Broward County, Alex Berrios had no idea that he was poor.

What he did know was that his mom was violent, he was hungry, and his stomach constantly hurt. There were many nights that he would go to bed hungry and cry himself to sleep.

Devon Murphy-Anderson grew up in the small coastal community of Harpswell, Maine. Her dad was a lobsterman and her mom worked in the local public schools. When she was in the eighth grade, she bought her own little lobster skiff and painted it hot pink.

It was this unlikely duo who, as adults, found themselves bonding while they worked for the Florida Democratic Party (FDP) in hopes of creating better lives for their fellow Floridians—especially those who grew up struggling like Alex. 

“I wanted to do something to make my son’s life better and my community better,” he tells Floricua.

How the idea happened

Devon and Alex were at separate watch parties on the night of Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020—Devon at the Miami Democratic headquarters, and Alex in the Miami Democratic field office.

That was the night that Donald Trump turned the once-purple state of Florida red—in a landslide—even nearly flipping what had been the reliably Democratic Miami-Dade county.

“It was a bloodbath,” former Miami-Dade Democratic Party chair Joe Garcia told The Washington Post the following day.

Devon and Alex felt demoralized.

“We basically had a moment as young people on the phone together, that no one was coming to save us,” recalls Devon, who was finance director for the FDP at that time. “There was no plan. That we were in the rooms with the (party) leaders watching how they were reacting to this loss and that was our moment to figure out how we could contribute to the solution.”

The two felt it was time to flip the standard playbook for reaching Florida’s voters. The same old strategies and ad campaigns were not working. If they wanted to change the downward trajectory of Democrats in the state, they were going to have to think differently. 

“We realized that the party was not going to be the best place for us as leaders, so we left it,” Devon, now 28, says.

The pair put their energy into co-founding a new voter registration organization: Mi Vecino, which translates to “My Neighbor” in English. They raised enough money from donors who believed in their vision to launch the grassroots organization in January 2021, registering their first voters two months later, in March.

Dems were losing Latino voters in FL—how two young innovators turned that around

Some of Team Mi Vecino at Orlando’s Puerto Rican Day parade—the largest Hispanic event in Florida every year. Courtesy Photo: Mi Vecino

Mi Vecino focused on registering Hispanic and Latino voters in Florida—a huge population that too-often goes ignored or misunderstood. Latinos make up nearly a quarter of Florida’s population—almost 5 million people—and a substantial number of them have never registered to vote.

“They don’t feel heard and they don’t feel important to political parties. They feel very left out of the political system,” says Devon.

Alex knows this feeling all too well. Now 44, he is Puerto Rican and Cuban, coming from a diverse but low-income community. 

“Florida is a very challenging state to live in if you’re a person of color, especially currently,” he says. “I’d been told ‘No’ my entire life. Everything is no, no, no, no. My son, 17, is a young Latino man…I want him to hear ‘Yes’ more often than ‘No.’”

Well before the 2020 election, it was his son who propelled Alex to leave a successful career as a boxing trainer to enter the world of political activism—something that felt alien at first. 

“I didn’t know what a local Democratic party was, didn’t know how any of it worked,” Alex says.

And yet, like a lot of Florida parents today, Alex felt he had to do something—especially after his boy confided that he was afraid of gun violence at his middle school. 

“[It] was just crazy to me that my son who’s this little is worried and having anxiety about being shot in class,” he says.

He started by volunteering for a local candidate—who lost. In the process, Alex learned that “I’m a very, very sore loser.” 

Despite that first experience, Alex was hooked on trying to make life safer and saner for everyone, especially kids in Florida. He worked his way up through jobs with the FDP, rising to campaign director for the state party and regional field director for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.

During that time, Alex learned a lot about what wasn’t working in capturing the trust of Florida’s Latino voters. And when he started talking with Devon, he learned that she shared many of his concerns. The two agreed that they needed to deploy new strategies—strategies that their own experiences convinced them would succeed. 

The work pays off

The original idea behind Mi Vecino was to build a team of Hispanic staffers, who would go out into their communities and talk to their neighbors about the issues weighing on them. Then, explain the power that they could have with their votes.

Dems were losing Latino voters in FL—how two young innovators turned that around

Mi Vecino team members canvassing with Congressman Darren Soto (D-Orlando). Courtesy Photo: Mi Vecino

It was empowering both to staffers and neighbors alike to realize that, yes, they were important in their state, and they would be heard.

Hiring local Spanish-speaking team members was an important core principle for the duo. Having their staff work throughout the year—boots on the ground 365 days, rather than parachuting into a district six months ahead of an election, as campaigns typically do—was principle number two. This was about building something that would last.

The third principle of the organization, inspired by learnings from the pandemic, was to not only register people to vote but to vote by mail.

The strategy was so successful that the grassroots group registered close to 38,000 new voters—including more than 32,000 in the state’s vote-by-mail program.

Their on-the-ground community work paid off in more ways than just registrations. Mi Vecino’s data showed that they had successfully mobilized 182,000 Floridians to go to the polls in 2022, including 34% who had never voted in a midterm election before.

Dems were losing Latino voters in FL—how two young innovators turned that around

Alex and Devon at the White House, after being invited by President Joe Biden as recognition for Mi Vecino’s work in Florida. Courtesy Photo: Mi Vecino

A counterblow from conservatives

What Mi Vecino never anticipated when they launched, however, was that Ron DeSantis and his Republican legislative supermajority would see their success and make groups like them a political target. 

In April 2023, the Florida legislature passed Senate Bill 7050, an extreme voter suppression law that put restrictions on voter registration groups like Mi Vecino. 

SB 7050, which took effect on July 1, 2023, requires organizations to reregister for each election cycle, prohibits prefilled information on registration applications, shortens the amount of time organizations have to return registration applications from 14 days to 10, and increases the fines associated with late delivery. 

The law also bans noncitizens and individuals with certain felony convictions from handling voter registration applications, and imposes fines for each violation—all while increasing the total aggregate fine that an organization can be levied in each calendar year from $50,000 to $250,000. 

The restrictions effectively meant that any grassroots organization with a small staff and small pockets had to walk away from registering voters in Florida. 

The law was pushed through under the conspiracy theory that Democrats carried out voter fraud in the 2020 election—claims that have been repeatedly debunked by courts and bipartisan investigations. 

In Florida, where people of color are five times more likely to rely on third-party organizations to register to vote than white people (according to a report submitted as part of a 2021 lawsuit against a similar voter suppression law) the SB 7050 was clearly targeted at a very specific population. 

Analysts say SB 7050 is one of  the most extreme voter suppression laws passed anywhere in the country, since the Jim Crow era ended with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Mi Vecino employees have joined one of several lawsuits filed by voter registration groups in Florida, which are now working their way through the courts. A resolution could still be months away.

But that isn’t stopping the Mi Vecino team from carrying out their on-the-ground work, going door to door to talk to their Hispanic communities about the issues they care about most. Their neighbors, Devon says, are terrified that their children will be victims of gun violence, and feel they’re being “crushed” by the rising costs of housing in the state.

Mi Vecino organizers plan to knock on more than 1 million doors in Miami-Dade County before this year’s November election, says Alex, plus make about 1.7 million phone calls to households. In Central Florida, the goal is to knock on 250,000 doors.

An organizational pivot

In April 2023, the same month the legislature passed SB 7050, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban into law. Still reeling from the implications of SB 7050, the Mi Vecino team pivoted to gathering signatures to put an amendment to the state Constitution, which would enshrine the right to an abortion, on the November 2024 ballot. 

The team focused on Florida’s Latino-heavy Congressional District 9, succeeding in getting 12,566 people to sign their petitions.

Dems were losing Latino voters in FL—how two young innovators turned that around

Devon (left) working at an abortion rights rally in Miami. Courtesy Photo: Mi Vecino

The next hurdle will be for 60% of Floridians who cast ballots in November to vote in support of the amendment.

The abortion petition project resonated with Devon. When she took up lobstering as a teen, she was the only girl doing it out of her local wharf. That’s her first memory of encountering sexism.

“This was my transition into womanhood, with the understanding that there are boxes and limits and labels,” she tells Floricua. “And that introduction into how I was treated, the comments being made in a male-dominated industry, was my first introduction into how, just by existing, you can be a change.”

Now Devon describes her passion for political organizing as “this burning fire on the inside of just wanting to see women more respected.”  

And what could be more disrespectful to women than to take the decisions about their bodies away from them through an abortion ban?

The Mi Vecino team has learned that many Floridians feel the same way—including many Latino men, who proved to be more willing to sign the abortion rights petition than the team expected.

“We talk about freedom,” Alex says. “We talk about politicians coming into our lives, taking away our rights and duties as men to look after our families as a man.”

“Our job one is to protect the people important to you, whether it’s your wife, or your mother, your daughter, your sister—it’s your job as a man to take care of the people you care about and we are not going to let politicians take that away from us and make decisions for the people in our families.”

What the future holds

While they have shifted focus for now, Alex and Devon have no intention of allowing the state’s voter suppression law to prevent them from educating Latino voters about which party supports the policies that can better their lives—including the abortion amendment.

The two are confident that they can mobilize the hundreds of thousands of Hispanic voters that they have built relationships with to show up to the polls come November.

“Think about what would have happened in 2018 [when DeSantis beat Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum by just 0.4% in the gubernatorial election] if we had done just a little better in Florida,” says Alex. 

“We wouldn’t be dealing with these attacks on history, on the LGBTQ+ community, attacks on women, on children, on education—attacks on everything. If we’d just done a little better in 2018.”

Mi Vecino aims to make up the difference in 2024.

Author

  • Bonnie Fuller

    Bonnie Fuller is the former CEO & Editor-in-Chief of HollywoodLife.com, and the former Editor-in-Chief of Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, USWeekly and YM. She now writes about politics and reproductive rights.

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