The remark from Sen. Rick Scott came so quickly and so simply, the implications of it were easy to overlook.
Scott stated in an interview earlier this month that not only should the 2020 Census include a question on citizenship, but “how many additional congressmen and women that Florida gets, it ought to be based on citizenship.” The Fox News host swiftly moved on.
But this idea — that citizenship should determine each state’s allotted number of members in the House of Representatives — is a massive departure in how lawmakers and courts have determined the makeup of Congress since the country’s founding. And, if implemented, it would reduce Florida’s influence in Washington, D.C., considerably.
Five other Republicans representing Florida in Congress indicated citizenship should determine how many seats states get in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Citizens are the only voters in this country, so I believe they should be the only ones counted when determining congressional district boundaries,” Rep. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, told the Tampa Bay Times in a statement.
Naples Rep. Francis Rooney said: “It is our citizenry that must elect their representatives in government. Noncitizens do not have a voice in this.”
The U.S. Supreme Court will soon determine whether President Donald Trump’s administration can include on the 2020 Census a question that asks if the respondent is a citizen. Census experts have long urged against a citizenship question on the decennial survey, warning it will lead to an undercount. Studies have shown minority populations, especially Hispanic communities, are less likely to respond out of fear of retribution. States like Florida could lose congressional seats and millions in federal financial assistance.
Republicans, though, have pushed hard for its inclusion. If their endgame is a Congress that reflects where citizens live, getting a citizenship question on the Census would be a step toward that goal.
“I don’t think California should get four extra congressional seats based on the number of illegal immigrants in the state,” said Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge. “It puts Florida at a disadvantage.”
Not true. With 2 million noncitizens and growing, Florida benefits from counting its foreign-born population. The state would have one less seat right now if only citizens mattered. California would drop four seats and the red state of Texas would have two fewer as well, according to a Times analysis of the 2017 American Community Survey. Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Pennsylvania and West Virginia would gain representatives.
If only citizens counted, it’s far less likely Florida grows from 27 congressional seats to 29 after the 2020 Census, as currently projected, greatly diminishing the state’s import in Congress and in future presidential contests. Congressional seats determine votes in the electoral college.
Unlike the citizenship Census question, the U.S. Constitution is remarkably clear on how to divvy up congressional districts: “The whole number of persons in each State,” the 14th Amendment says. In the 1920s, an anti-immigrant movement, backed by some members of Congress, tried and failed to amend the Constitution to keep aliens from counting in congressional districts.
“It’s in the Constitution in black and white — count the people — not count the citizens,” said Rep. Charlie Crist, a St. Petersburg Democrat. No Congressional Democrats surveyed by the Times support apportionment by citizenship. Many noted that their work requires them to work with all residents regardless of citizenship status.
Scott wasn’t suggesting a change to the Constitution, his spokesman Chris Hartline said.
Would a new Supreme Court more friendly to Republicans interpret the 14th Amendment differently? It would be an unimaginable reversal of decades of precedent, said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University.
Except when enslaved people counted as three-fifths a person and Native Americans were ignored altogether, the United States has always apportioned congressional districts based on total population in a state, not number of citizens.
“It’s an extraordinarily bad case to make,” Torres-Spelliscy said. “If you look at what the Supreme Court has said on one person, one vote, it has always been on the basis of total population.”
Other Republicans, like Palm Harbor Rep. Gus Bilirakis, suggested apportioning congressional districts based on citizens and legal immigrants, including people who have obtained a green card. Sen. Marco Rubio recently tweeted: “Districts apportioned based on # of people not here legally dilutes the political representation of citizens & legal residents.”
MORE TIMES POLITICAL COVERAGE: Seven things to know about the new texting while driving ban
One problem: The Census does not ask noncitizens if they have a legal status to live here. Even a citizenship question wouldn’t accomplish that, confirmed Margo Anderson, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor and Census historian.
About 12.2 million immigrants are lawful permanent residents but not U.S. citizens and another 2.2 million are temporary lawful residents, according to a Pew Research Center report released this week.
Anderson said similar ideas have been considered over the past 60 years but Census directors always rejected them.
“The question of whether we’re doing this for political advantage or the theoretical question of who the electorate is,” she said, “has been going on for a long time.”
Times staff writer Langston Taylor contributed to this report. Contact Steve Contorno at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @scontorno.