Florida's surging population growth is expanding the state's reach over the nation's political landscape, giving it one more congressional seat and greater influence on the path to the presidency.
U.S. Census Bureau figures released Monday show Florida gained more than 2.7 million residents since the last once-a-decade head count in 2010, boosting its population to 21,538,187 million people as of April 1, 2020, up nearly 14.6% from 18,801,310 a decade earlier. It is the nation's third most populous state, behind California and Texas. For apportionment purposes, the census recorded 21,570,527, including people living overseas who call Florida home.
In all, the United States now has 331,449,281 people.
The population boom boosts Florida’s clout in the U.S. House of Representatives, where its delegation will grow to 28 members. That means the state will have 30 presidential electors, equal to its number of members in the House and Senate. Florida's gain breaks an Electoral College tie with New York, where population has declined.
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Some early estimates had Florida possibly gaining as many two new seats, but that second seat did not materialize.
The expectation of an added seat already has triggered a flurry of political speculation as a redistricting panel gets ready to carve out new congressional and statehouse boundaries. Redistricting could again be a long, protracted affair that could land in court. The last redistricting process took much of the decade to resolve.
“As always, redistricting is the biggest political fight in Florida politics. It’s been that way since time eternal, and it’s not going to be any different this time out,” said Susan MacManus, a professor emeritus of politics at the University of South Florida.
Some 1,000 new residents moved to Florida from other states every day in recent years, an overwhelming number of them retirees lured by sunshine, low taxes and a more-relaxed culture, said Rich Doty, a demographer with the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida.
“They’re coming to retire, and those demographics tend to be older, white Republicans," he said.
The last redistricting effort, which added two congressional seats, languished in court for years after challenges from the League of Women Voters of Florida and other groups. They argued that the Republican-drawn maps violated a 2010 voter-approved ballot measure that sought to prohibit gerrymandering favoring one party and overly protecting incumbents.
The maps also concentrated communities of color to reduce their broader influence.
State lawmakers are charged with drawing the lines for congressional and legislative districts. The governor has the authority to sign or veto the congressional plan, while the Florida Supreme Court has to give its blessings to the legislative districts.
Before the so-called fair districts amendment, there were few rules preventing the party in power in the state Legislature from gerrymandering, said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Florida.
"I'll be watching to see if the Republicans aren't working behind the scenes to subvert the amendment, and that they are drawing fair maps without the intent of favoring a party or an incumbent," Jewett said.
It's the first time since the 1940s that the state's congressional delegation did not grow by two or more seats, noted Jewett, who expressed surprise by the smaller-than-expected growth.
Analysts will no doubt look deeper into the census count to explain why Florida and Texas, both with significant Hispanic populations, did not gain as many seats as expected. Some expected Texas to gain three seats.
“We did do a very thorough job, especially in those areas, making sure we counted everybody,” said Ron Jarmin, the acting director of the U.S. Census Bureau. “Some folks' projections might have been based on slightly higher population growth projections.”
Still, the impending reapportionment could sway decisions among some Democrats considering their next campaigns. Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio, both Republicans, are up for reelection in 2022.
Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg is considering another bid for governor, a post he previously held as a Republican before becoming an independent and being elected to Congress as a Democrat. Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy has begun raising her statewide profile as she considers challenging Rubio.
Both could find themselves squeezed out if the redistricting panel redraws their districts in a way that brings in more conservative voters. To a lesser degree, the redrawing also could factor into whether U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando decides to run for governor or Senate.
Where the new district will be added remains uncertain. Most predictions point to the southern half of the state, possibly along the Interstate 4 corridor and the Miami metropolitan area. However they are drawn, the added district will cause a ripple effect. Boundaries will have to shift elsewhere to equalize the number of people each district represents.
With Florida Republicans firmly in control of the Legislature, Democrats worry that redistricting will worsen their disadvantage and influence the balance of power on Capitol Hill, where Democrats hold just a slim House majority.
Senate President Wilton Simpson expressed hope Monday that lawmakers will be able to complete their reapportionment work by the end of next year's legislative session but would not name senators until the Legislature is ready to draw districts.
And he warned his members to refrain from having “conversations with parties who may attempt to persuade the Legislature to pass maps that favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent.”
Ryan Tyson, a Republican pollster, dismissed concerns that GOP legislative leaders already are plotting to deepen their party’s advantage. But he also noted that the state Supreme Court is more conservative-leaning than in years past and may not be willing to assert itself in redistricting challenges. Without the threat of court intervention, Democrats may have little power to influence the results.
“Democrats and independents will have to fight every step of the way to ensure that Republicans who have complete control of this process do it fairly and ensure proper representation," said Kevin Cate, a Democratic media consultant.