Florida is projected to gain two seats in Congress. Here’s why that’s a huge deal

By: - January 17, 2020 7:00 am

Census field work is on pause. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Florida is projected to gain two U.S. House seats in the coming years, new data show — a change that would increase the state’s influence in national politics and could lead to more money for federally funded projects and services like roads and health care facilities.

The Sunshine State is one of seven “gaining states” on a list compiled by Election Data Services, a political consulting firm. It is based on projected population shifts through April 1, the date by which all people in U.S. households will be counted.

Florida’s population has risen by 2.7 million over the past decade and is now estimated to be 21.5 million, according to the latest census bureau data. It is the nation’s 3rd most populous state, after California and Texas.

U.S. Capitol Complex. Photo from United States Capitol Police.

As a result, the state’s congressional delegation may rise from 27 to 29 members of the U.S. House — continuing a steady increase in congressional representation over the last century and a half.

Florida is not unlike other states in the South and West, several of which are also projected to win more seats, according to Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services. 

States in the Midwest and Northeast, meanwhile, are projected to lose seats because their populations are not growing as fast.

Under Brace’s projections, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon are each expected to pick up one House seat next year; Florida would gain two; and Texas three. On the losing side are Alabama, California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia.

But the projections are merely best guesses. The final count — and the subsequent apportionment of U.S. House members — will depend on the Trump administration’s support for and effectiveness in undertaking the massive project, the public’s response to it and the implications of national events, such as natural disasters, Brace said in a statement.

A full and precise accounting of the nation’s increasingly diverse and growing population — now estimated at some 330 million — is all but impossible.

Certain groups, such as people of color, homeless people, young children, immigrants and others have been undercounted in the past and may be so again. 

U.S. Supreme Court, Dec. 2, 2019. Credit: Robin Bravender

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that the 2020 census could not include a question about citizenship status, but some are still wary of providing the government with personal information, according to Tom Wolf, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice.

Another unknown is how the nation’s first “online first” census will play out. Questions remain about whether the project’s internet platform will work and the degree to which people will respond, Wolf said. The census has been underfunded this decade and, as a result, hasn’t been tested as thoroughly as hoped, he said.

He also cited concerns about disinformation about the process on social media. “There are still significant questions about how everything will come together.”

Under Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida was one of the last states in the nation to form a statewide census committee, AP reported this month. 

DeSantis has come under fire from critics who accused him of dragging his feet. 

“Florida is the third most populous state in the country, and the Census cannot be done last minute,” Terrie Rizzo, chair of the Florida Democratic Party, said in a statement. “DeSantis’ procrastination could result in many Floridians not being counted, and that puts at risk federal dollars and additional congressional seats.”

‘Reallocating political power’

The final count will be delivered to the president in December — after the elections this fall — and total population numbers will be available early next year. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis, flanked by Senate President Bill Galvano and House Speaker Jose Oliva at the end of the 2019 Florida legislative session in early May. Photo by governor’s press office.

The results will have profound implications for Floridians, in that they will determine who is represented in the nation’s political system and who gets what from the government. 

“The census is reallocating political power throughout the country,” Wolf said. “We’re not just talking about the political power of states. We’re also talking about the political power of communities throughout those states.”

Census data are used to apportion seats in Congress, which in turn determines states’ representation in the Electoral College — and their say in presidential elections. 

A two-seat gain would reinforce the Florida’s status as “the most important swing state” in presidential elections, according to Aubrey Jewett, a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida. 

Additional House seats would likely lead to more influence in Congress and more money for the state, said Chris Warshaw, a professor of political science at The George Washington University. 

Census data are used to determine how to distribute billions of dollars in federal funds to states, counties and communities for schools, roads, hospitals and other programs and services. And studies show that the number of seats a state has in Congress affects how much money it gets from the federal government, Warshaw added.

New maps

The census results will also be used in redistricting, the process by which new congressional and state legislative district boundaries are drawn.

Jewett predicted that a new seat might be drawn in central Florida as a result of large population gains. Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, agreed, noting a recent influx in the area among Puerto Ricans.

But new lines are difficult to predict — and will depend on the census results as well as other factors, such as which party controls the state government, the extent to which mapmakers follow state redistricting rules and the role the courts play in enforcing new maps.

In 2010, the state passed constitutional amendments designed to curtail partisan gerrymandering. But the effort didn’t work as well as intended — at least according to the state Supreme Court, which ruled halfway through the decade that Republicans — who controlled the redistricting process — had unfairly drawn districts that favored their own party. 

The court approved new boundaries in 2015, and the delegation is now about evenly split, with 14 Republicans and 13 Democrats.

The next time around, Republicans — who currently control both chambers of the state Legislature and the governor’s mansion — are expected to retain control of at least one chamber, if not both, Jewett said. 

But the outcome of legal challenges could be much different, given that the court is now more heavily dominated by justices appointed by GOP governors.

“We have to watch how the politics roll out,” McDonald said.

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Allison Stevens
Allison Stevens

Allison Stevens is a freelance writer for the States Newsroom's Washington, D.C. bureau.