Ron DeSantis: Florida to help census after all. But is it too late?

Nonprofit leaders have spent years asking the state to help with the census. Now the governor says Florida will help. But what can state government do in so little time?
In this April 23, 2019 file photo, immigration activists rally outside the Supreme Court as the justices hear arguments over the Trump administration's plan to ask about citizenship on the 2020 census, in Washington. [AP Photo (2019)]
In this April 23, 2019 file photo, immigration activists rally outside the Supreme Court as the justices hear arguments over the Trump administration's plan to ask about citizenship on the 2020 census, in Washington. [AP Photo (2019)] [ J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE | AP ]
Published Jan. 7, 2020|Updated Jan. 7, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Months after saying the state would not “have a role” in promoting the 2020 census, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis reversed himself and announced Monday the state would help after all.

Counting every living American is a massive effort, and certain populations — especially renters and people of color — risk not getting counted. The configuration of congressional and state legislative districts, as well as billions of dollars in grant funding for things like school lunches, rely on decennial census data. Officials fret about counting as many people as possible.

Several Democratic lawmakers cited those concerns over the summer and called on DeSantis to form a ‘Complete Count Committee.' Such committees, usually public-private partnerships, coordinate outreach efforts to build awareness and trust in the census.

Related: Ron DeSantis: Citizenship question or not, state will not aid 2020 Census count

In June, DeSantis rejected the idea after a Sarasota news conference.

A statement issued Monday evening struck a different tone. “Florida will do its part to support the federal government’s efforts,” DeSantis said in the release. He named Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez to lead the committee.

In response to a question about why DeSantis changed his position, his office said Monday that his previous comments were not about the census as a whole.

“When the Governor said Florida does not have a role in the census, he was responding to questions about whether citizenship should be included in the questionnaire, which was a question for the federal government,” said spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré.

But that’s not correct. An audio recording of DeSantis’ exchange with a reporter after the June news conference confirmed that he wasn’t asked about whether citizenship would be on the questionnaire. Instead, DeSantis was, in fact, asked to respond to the request from Democratic lawmakers "to form a census committee to ensure that Floridians aren’t miscounted.”

The governor’s response then: "The federal government does that, we don’t have a role in it ... So if (Democrats) have concerns, they should talk to the Commerce Department in Washington.”

Several nonprofit leaders, who have been asking Florida’s state government for years to have a plan to help with the 2020 census, said they were happy but shocked at DeSantis’ announcement.

Florida Counts Census 2020, an initiative formed with seven nonprofit organizations throughout the state, has raised $800,000 to help charities and churches do some of the counting, with the understanding that Florida would be leaving local communities to coordinate with the feds.

“We in the nonprofit sector were worried, since philanthropy is often looked to, to fill in the gap,” said Sabeen Perwaiz, executive director of the Florida Nonprofit Alliance, which is part of the coalition.

Karen Wilkerson, who’s organizing census efforts for the Florida League of Women Voters, also said her previous conversations with state employees were not indicative that the state was willing to help.

“I am thrilled they have changed their mind and formed a committee,” she said.

Those members on the Nuñez committee include representatives of the state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, AARP, the Florida Coalition to End Homelessness, the state university system and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, according to the governor’s office.

However, while some other states have pledged millions of dollars to support their state committees’ efforts, Monday evening’s announcement indicated no state dollars would be used.

“The federal government is going to be using a record-breaking amount of money to ensure the duties of the census are being carried out,” Ferré said. “We do not anticipate, at this time, adding any monies to that.”

As of December, the New York Times reported there was a clear partisan gap between states willing to fund campaigns promoting the upcoming census. Democratic-controlled states were. Republican-controlled states weren’t. California will spend $187 million, for example, while the Texas Legislature declined any funding.

The governor’s announcement doesn’t give state government much time to enter the census process. Nearly every county already has a local census committee.

“The Legislature should have done some funding for this in 2017, 2018, 2019. But there’s no time now," said Liza McClenaghan, state chair of Common Cause Florida, a voter advocacy group.

Florida is likely on the verge of gaining one or two more Congressional seats after a decade of population growth. But it also is a state at a high risk of an undercount, researchers say.

Neighborhoods with lots of black and Hispanic households are projected to see severe undercounts. Florida ranks in the top 11 states for both populations.

Language barriers pose another challenge. As a result, in more than 15 percent of Florida households, the first mailer residents will receive will be bilingual, according to data compiled by the CUNY Center for Urban Research.

“They look like they’ve created the right names on the list of people to be invested in the process,” McClenaghan added. “But it’s not the same level of engagement, compared to other states, needed to ensure an accurate count for a state this size.”

Bradenton Herald reporter Giuseppe Sabella contributed to this report.