Florida’s population boom will give it another seat in the U.S. House

Although the pickup is a boost in Florida’s influence in presidential elections, it’s the first time since 1940 that the state failed to gain at least two seats.
Florida's population boom will give it another seat in the U.S. House, boosting influence in presidential elections.
Florida's population boom will give it another seat in the U.S. House, boosting influence in presidential elections. [ BILL CLARK | AP ]
Published April 26, 2021|Updated April 26, 2021

WASHINGTON — Florida’s clout in Congress and the state’s importance in presidential elections is growing — but the gain was smaller than anticipated.

The Census Bureau announced the initial results of the nationwide 2020 population count on Monday, and Florida gained one new U.S. House seat after a 14.6 percent population gain from 2010 to 2020. The state’s estimated population is now 21,538,187 as of April 1, 2020.

Florida’s population increase was greater than the national average of 7.4 percent over the last decade, but the state just missed out from gaining a second U.S. House seat, as many demographic experts predicted. Florida will now have 28 U.S. House members and 30 Electoral College votes, (adding the state’s two Senate seats) in the 2024 presidential election.

The overall shift in U.S. House seats, seven among 13 states, is the smallest shift since the House capped its membership at 435 representatives in 1929, the Census Bureau said. Texas was the only state to gain two seats. Montana, Oregon, Colorado and North Carolina also gained one seat.

“We know Texas and Florida are among the biggest winners here,” said Sergio Garcia-Rios, a professor at Cornell University who studies Latino voter trends. “These states are gaining population not only because of internal growth but due to population shifts, not so much international migration but intrastate migration.”

Monday’s announcement was delayed in part due to Census’ challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and former President Donald Trump’s desire to remove undocumented immigrants from the population count. Florida, Texas and Arizona, three fast-growing states with large immigrant populations, all gained fewer seats than projected.

Florida Legislature draws new district boundaries

Now, the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature will draw new congressional district lines in a condensed time frame before the 2022 election.

Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said her organization is calling on lawmakers in Tallahassee to pledge they won’t let partisan interests interfere with drawing district lines. Most states, including Florida, allow lawmakers to draw congressional district lines, but nine states use redistricting commissions.

“What we’re doing now is letting the public and state Legislature know that our legislative district lines should be drawn in a transparent way that is community driven,” Brigham said. “Those districts should not be drawn to predict election outcomes.”

Karen Battle, a chief statistician at the Census Bureau, said growth in Florida and Texas was less than expected compared to population estimates calculated throughout the last decade.

“For the state of Texas and for the state of Florida the 2020 Census count was actually below our population estimates from 2020,” Battle said. “The difference between the 2020 Census count and estimate was about 1 percent.”

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That 1 percent difference likely cost Florida an additional House seat. Florida’s next allocated seat was ranked 439th on the list, four short of gaining the 435th and last U.S. House seat, which went to Minnesota. The 2020 Census is the first since 1940 in which the state failed to gain at least two seats.

“This is a unique ritual that has occurred only 23 other times in U.S. history,” said Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. “We look forward to delivering the district data no later than September 30.”

Second-slowest national growth rate

The nationwide 7.4 percent growth rate was the second-smallest ever recorded, slightly ahead of the 1940 Census in which the entire population increased by 7.3 percent. Utah had the largest percentage growth of any U.S. state at 18.4 percent while West Virginia saw the biggest percent decrease at -3.2 percent. Puerto Rico, which was hit by Hurricane Maria in 2017, saw an 11.8 percent population decline, far outpacing any U.S. state.

More detailed information about race, ethnicity, sex along with population counts for specific municipalities will be released this fall. Those details will also play a role in where new congressional districts are created and the distribution of federal funds for public programs and entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid.

The more detailed data will determine where Florida’s new U.S. House seat will be based, but multiple demographic experts expect Central Florida to be the fastest growing area within the state and the most likely site of Florida’s 28th U.S. House seat.

The last map drawn by the Florida Legislature after the 2010 Census was thrown out by the Florida Supreme Court, though it was in effect during the 2012 and 2014 elections. In 2015, the court ruled in favor of a map drawn by a group of Democratic-affiliated organizations for the 2016 election, altering Miami districts represented by Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson and former Republican Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. While Democrats flipped Florida’s 26th and 27th Congressional Districts in 2018 after they were drawn to favor Democrats in 2015, Republican Reps. Carlos Gimenez and Maria Elvira Salazar currently represent the seats after beating Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, respectively, during the 2020 election.

In a statement, Florida Democratic Party Chairman Manny Diaz said the new U.S. House seat “is an exciting development that means our rapidly growing and increasingly diverse state will be appropriately represented in Congress.”

“Now as new districts are drawn, we must demand that the politicians follow the constitutional standards approved by Florida voters,” Diaz said.

The last redistricting process was a legal mess

The Florida redistricting battles after 2010 ultimately cost taxpayers $11 million and led to four trials, three special sessions in Tallahassee and eight rulings from the Florida Supreme Court. In 2017, the Florida House backed off an attempt to weaken a 2010 Florida Constitution amendment that requires districts to be drawn without the intention of hurting or helping a political party or to disenfranchise minorities. Instead, the Florida Legislature passed a narrower bill that enables candidates for Congress, the state Senate and state House to collect signatures from any registered voter in Florida during a year in which boundaries are uncertain — a process that will likely play out during the 2022 election cycle.

Dan Vicuna, the national redistricting manager with Common Cause, one of the groups that helped draw Florida’s current congressional map, said Florida has more time than other states to draw new boundaries despite Census delays caused by COVID-19.

“We’ll be keeping a watchful eye on whether the process is fair and transparent as required,” Vicuna said, adding that some states will face a deadline crunch to draw districts in time for the next election, “but fortunately Florida is not one of them.”

“There’s plenty of time for robust public participation,” Vicuna said.

Garcia-Rios said he expects Republicans around the country to attempt to draw districts in their favor, which will lead to more court fights around redistricting ahead of 2022.

“What this is going to do is untap a series of lawsuits,” Garcia-Rios said. “I’m curious what is the response from now until September, when we get the more granular data.”

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.