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What the census undercount did to Florida’s clout and cash | Editorial
We won’t have a chance to get this right until 2030, but let’s not repeat this mistake.
In April 2019, Noelle Fries, 6, left, and Galen Biel, 6, both of Minneapolis, attend a rally at the Minnesota Capitol to kick off a year-long drive to try to ensure that all Minnesota residents are counted in the 2020 census. They were, unlike Florida, which had a substantial undercount.
In April 2019, Noelle Fries, 6, left, and Galen Biel, 6, both of Minneapolis, attend a rally at the Minnesota Capitol to kick off a year-long drive to try to ensure that all Minnesota residents are counted in the 2020 census. They were, unlike Florida, which had a substantial undercount. [ STEVE KARNOWSKI | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jun. 2

A lot of Floridians went missing in the 2020 census, which is costing the Sunshine State at least one seat in Congress and untold billions of federal dollars. About 750,600 Floridians were not counted in 2020, according to a new Census Bureau analysis. That’s a lot of missing people — more than the combined population of Tampa and St. Petersburg. And more than the population of Wyoming (576,851), Vermont (643,077) or Alaska (733,391).

In being undercounted by the populations of entire states, Florida is failing to get its due — in clout and in federal cash, everything that is based on head counts, from Medicare to highway money. We now will have 28 representatives in Congress, but we should have 29. We can envy states that did it right — we’re looking at you, Minnesota. It got the 435th and final congressional seat by the capacity of a short bus. Had the Gopher State counted 26 fewer people, that seat would have gone to New York.

We can’t demand a recount. Florida will just have to live with the loss for a decade because there is no fixing this until the next census. All the talk about gerrymandering aside, it’s a truly bipartisan issue. Floridians — Republicans, Democrats and independents — will all have less representation in Congress than they should for the next decade. It’s a pity, but it’s the reality.

The point of the census is to count every man, woman and child in the United States. But in 2019, the Trump administration wanted to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, which would have meant that many minorities and immigrants, documented or not, understandably would have been afraid to fill out the census. The Supreme Court eventually threw out the citizenship question but by then, the damage was done. Some states took extraordinary steps to allay the fears of those who were scared of the census, and they benefited from having a count that was closer to the true number of residents. In early 2020, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a statewide committee tasked with ensuring that every Floridian was counted. But as we now know, it was too little, too late.

It wasn’t just the citizenship question. The 2020 census relied more on self-reporting, and that required reliable internet service, something Black and Hispanic households lack more often than white ones, which disadvantaged states such as Florida with substantial minority populations. The census occurred during the pandemic and a time of intense distrust in government. It would have taken a great deal of public persuasion — time, effort and money — to convince people to stand up and be counted. And Florida simply didn’t do nearly as well as other states.

We know about the undercount because the Census Bureau does a critique of its own work called the Post-Enumeration Survey. The survey re-interviews a sample of residents and compares those results to the census to see “what we did right and what we did wrong,” said Census Bureau official Timothy Kennel. An estimated 3.48% of Florida residents were missed in 2020, compared with less than half a percentage point (0.45%) in 2010.

The census officially counted 21,538,187 Floridians in 2020. The missing 750,600 residents would put the population far above 22 million, which is much closer to reality. Worse, the state didn’t even have to count all of those missing Floridians to gain another congressional seat. An analysis by Election Data Services shows it needed a mere 171,500 more people to have another representative in Congress. In addition, a full and complete count would also have ensured Florida got its fair share of the annual distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal funding. But for now, all Florida can do is plan ahead to do better in 2030 to make sure that every resident is counted.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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