Florida and Republicans are winners in new allocation of seats in Congress

Florida is about to become a more powerful player in national politics based on Census reapportionment numbers released Monday, part of an enormously important redistribution of power every 10 years.

“We gain clout,” said former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, a Palm Beach County Republican. “Our prestige increases.”

Florida’s gain isn’t as big as some had expected, however.

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First, the increased clout will come in the state’s congressional delegation. Florida will gain one seat, for a total of 28 in the 435-member House of Representatives, starting with next year’s elections for Congress.

Second, it will come in the number of votes the state gets in the Electoral College, which determines who wins the presidency in 2024 and beyond.

Florida will gain one electoral vote there as well, for a total of 30 out of the 538 electors. That means Florida will have more than one-tenth of the 270 votes needed to win the presidency.

Florida’s population grew — a lot — between the official 2010 Census and the 2020 count, which reflects the population as of April 1. Florida’s population count was 21,538,187, an increase of 14.6% over the previous 10 years.

The nation’s population as of April 1, 2020, was 332,449,281, an increase of 7.4% since 2010. Southern states grew the fastest, 10.2% over the decade. Population was up 9.2% in the West, 4.1% in the Northeast, and 3.1% in the Midwest.

Though Florida grew a lot, it wasn’t as high as some expected. Many analysts thought Florida would gain two seats in the House and two Electoral College votes. Though the state gained relative to most other states, it fell short of adding enough people to gain two more House seats and electoral votes.

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Utah, Idaho, Texas, North Dakota and Nevada all had greater percentage increases in population than Florida.

Census Bureau analysts said Monday they didn’t yet have information about population or demographic shifts within states to offer assessments as to why Florida, for example, didn’t grow at quite the rate that was expected. Specifics needed to draw districts, including population totals and demographic information, will be released by Sept. 30.

Karen Battle, chief of the Census Bureau’s population division, said that Florida’s official count was about 1% less than the agency’s previous estimates suggested. She didn’t say why.

Steve Schale, a Tallahassee-based Democratic strategist, suggested on Twitter that attempts by former President Donald Trump’s administration to prevent the Census from counting non-citizens, who the Supreme Court ruled ultimately had to be included, could have had an impact.

Matthew Isbell, a Florida-based Democratic data consultant who runs the MCI Maps firm, said the Trump administration’s “constant push for the citizenship question [could have caused] an undercount in places like southeast Florida or in Orlando.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, which caused significant Census delays, could have had an effect as well on the count. “We don’t really have a good handle on how the pandemic has affected population change and population growth within states,” said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist.

The population numbers and apportionment of seats among the states were announced Monday by the Census Bureau. One bit of data released Monday showed why civic leaders spent months pushing people to fill out their Census forms, arguing each additional person could make a difference. If New York had 89 more people — just 89 out of a total population of 20,215,751— it would have kept one congressional seat.

Florida, by contrast, would have had to have 171,561 more people to get a second additional seat.

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Allocating congressional districts, or apportioning them among the states, is the reason the Constitution requires a census every 10 years. After each census, the population numbers are used to divide membership in the U.S. House, with each state getting at least one member. States like Florida, with faster-than-average population growth, gain seats. States with slower growth, or stagnant or declining populations, get fewer seats.

Each state gets electoral votes equal to its number of House seats plus its two senators. That’s why Florida’s 28 congressional seats translate to 30 electoral votes.

Republicans are the biggest winners.

Because Republicans control Florida government, which draws boundaries of congressional districts, they’ll be able to virtually guarantee that the new congressional district will elect a Republican to Congress.

“They’re going to draw it to be an R seat,” said Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale. Smith was a member of the Florida House during the redistricting that followed the 2000 Census and a member of the Florida Senate for the post-2010 redistricting.

Broward Mayor Steve Geller, who was in the Florida House for the post-1990 Census redistricting and as a state senator was the Democratic negotiator for the redistricting that came after the 2000 Census, wasn’t quite as certain as Smith or Foley, but he said a new Republican congressional seat was likely.

Although the Census Bureau said it didn’t have data ready to show population shifts within states, Geller said it’s likely that the highest growth was around the Republican-leaning Villages in central Florida, so even without manipulation the Republicans are in a good position to pick up a seat.

Given South Florida’s Democratic proclivities, Republican control of redistricting, and the explosive growth in some parts of the state, southern Florida is exceedingly unlikely to get a new congressional district, Foley, Geller and Smith said.

Republicans can use their influence to inflict pain on Democrats in other ways.

Smith said redistricting — and the prospect of having to run for re-election in less politically friendly districts — is a big part of why U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, is thinking about running for governor and U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Winter Park, has explored running for higher office, possibly U.S. Senate.

A report this year from the Brennan Center for Justice listed Florida as among the “highest-risk states” for political manipulation in the drawing of congressional districts. The manipulation is known as gerrymandering.

Voters added the “fair districts” amendments to the Florida Constitution in 2010. The new rules require districts be as compact as possible, that they respect existing geographic community boundaries as much as possible, and that they not be drawn to favor political parties or incumbents.

The Florida Supreme Court ordered a special mid-decade redistricting to fix problems it found in the districts the Legislature had approved starting with 2012 elections.

In a memo to senators after the Census released its numbers, Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson warned them about actions or statements that could be used as evidence of partisan intentions, and to “be aware that they may be compelled to produce records or be subject to questioning under oath about conversations with parties who may attempt to persuade the Legislature to pass maps that favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent.”

But with several justices appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, Smith and many other Democrats don’t think the “fair districts” provisions in the state Constitution will serve as an impediment to partisan redistricting.

“Fair districts is so broad, a lot of the terminology is so broad that it can be interpreted either way,” Smith said. “I think the [Florida] Supreme Court that we have now will interpret it most favorably to the Legislature, because it’s an easy judicial argument to kick it to the Legislature. If it’s an easy argument that favors the people you want to favor, that makes it even better.”

The new Republican seat from Florida is part of a shift that carries enormous national implications. A total of seven seats (and electoral votes) are shifting among 13 states.

In addition to Florida, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon each gained one seat and Texas gained two. California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia each lost one seat.

The current lineup in the House is 218 Democrats to 212 Republicans. Population shifts nationwide — similar to what’s giving Florida an additional seat — are one of the two big reasons Republicans are seen as having a good chance to win control of the House of Representatives in the 2024 elections. (In addition, the president’s party typically loses seats.)

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Geller said he’s hopeful that not all the shifts will produce more Republican seats. If growth took place in urban areas of states like Texas, Geller said that might give Democrats a chance to win some new districts. As in Florida, Republicans in Texas have complete control of redistricting, giving them an advantage.

But Foley said the shift is more likely to help Republicans.

“That’s control of Congress. We’re on the razor’s edge right now,” Foley said. The current Republican leader in the House, “Kevin McCarthy, could conceivably become speaker of the House in the next Congress.”

Sun Sentinel staff writer Aric Chokey and Orlando Sentinel staff writer Steven Lemongello contributed to this report.

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