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Florida GOP Accused of Suppressing Minority Voters by Underfunding Census

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Photo by Gage Skidmore / Flickr
How important is the 2020 United States Census for Florida? The once-in-a-decade count will not only decide how many new congressional seats will be awarded to the Sunshine State until 2030, but also determine Florida's share of more than $675 billion in federal funding on the table for local schools, hospitals, roads, and even student lunches.

An undercount next April could have huge ramifications for South Florida. But you wouldn't know it by the actions of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who may well need a new pair of shoes after so much foot-dragging on the issue.

Florida is among 24 states that have not spent a cent on U.S. Census-related efforts and one of only five states that have failed to form a committee to raise awareness about the count, according to a recent report by the New York Times. States such as California are pouring huge sums into campaigns to raise Census participation among residents — the logic being that investing a few million dollars on the front end could result in billions later. (Local officials estimated California lost roughly $2,000 in federal funding for every resident who wasn't counted in the 2010 Census. The math speaks for itself.)

In Florida, the third most populous state behind California and Texas, efforts to establish statewide Census committees died in a Republican-controlled Legislature, without so much as a peep from the governor.

DeSantis' office did not respond to a request for comment from New Times today. But last month, the governor's spokeswoman, Helen Ferre, said he "takes the Census seriously" and was still in the process of reviewing what action to take.

New Florida Majority is one of a few organizations trying to fill in the void left by the inaction from DeSantis and the Legislature. The nonprofit is working to enhance education efforts in hard-to-reach areas.

"The lack of preparation for the Census is an absolute disservice to the state of Florida," New Florida Majority program director Moné Holder says.

Absent action on the state level, localities such as Orange and Broward Counties have created their own Census committees out of desperation. Holder says this is a false solution and that most counties likely won't do the same.

"The lack of urgency at the state level trickles down to counties and localities," Holder says. "The governor should allocate more funding to outreach efforts before it's too late."

Florida has gained roughly 2.5 million residents since the last Census, largely due to increased migration from Puerto Rico and Latin American countries such as Venezuela. More broadly, Florida is home to large black and Hispanic populations, which were significantly undercounted nationwide in the last Census.

Holder points out this will be the first Census in which online questionnaires will be the primary participation mechanism, presenting new challenges for older people less digitally savvy than younger generations. The emphasis on online responses could also isolate low-income and rural communities where internet service is lacking.

To make matters worse for Florida, which is home to a large population of non-U.S. citizens, Holder says the belief that a question about citizenship will be included in the Census persists despite the Supreme Court's decision to block the Trump administration from adding it. Together, these challenges create conditions for a significant undercount.

Researchers with the Urban Institute estimated in June, a few weeks before the citizenship question was struck down by the Supreme Court, that 97,000 to 320,000 Floridians could be missed during next year's count, with most of those missed counts among black and Hispanic communities.

So why would Florida Republicans risk losing millions in federal funding and more clout in Congress? The answer, as always, is politics. A larger Census count of minority residents and low-income residents — groups that tend to vote Democratic — could eat away at Republican representation in congressional maps, which will be drawn by the state Legislature in 2021.

"In my view and the view of folks working at the grassroots level, this inaction is about suppressing the vote of certain communities in Florida," Holder says. "I don't think it's by accident. It’s by design."
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Manuel Madrid is a former staff writer for Miami New Times. The child of Venezuelan immigrants, he grew up in Pompano Beach. He studied finance at Virginia Commonwealth University and worked as a writing fellow for the magazine The American Prospect in Washington, D.C.