'Winner takes all' keeps Florida relevant and important

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The 2000 presidential election taught us that every vote matters, especially in the Electoral College, and especially in Florida. Florida is distinguished in that it is just one of two states earning two or more additional seats in the House of Representatives as a result of the 2010 census (Texas is the big winner with four additional seats) which means that Florida gains two more Electoral Votes in the upcoming election. The 2010 census resulted in eight states gaining and ten states losing seats in the House, while the remainder stayed the same. The same seven states with one at-large House seat as of the 2000 census are the same as of 2010.

Yet there are many misconceptions about the allocation of House seats and, by extension, the Electoral College, which warrant attention. One such misconception is that the House of Representatives grows with the U.S. population. The current size of the House of Representatives was set in 1911, more than 100 years ago, while the size of the Senate varies as the number of states varies.  It is only if a current state divides, or another U.S. territory or district such as Puerto Rico or the District of Columbia becomes a state, that the size of the Senate will grow and, by extension, the size of Congress and the Electoral College. A second misconception about the reallocation of seats in the House is that, as the population grows, so too does a state’s representation in the House. Not so. Because the House size does not change with each census, some states may actually lose representation despite population gains. Seven of the eight states losing one seat in the House experienced population gains, as high as 7% in Missouri, while both states losing two seats, New York and Ohio, also experienced population gains. Florida’s gain is another state’s loss, or several.     

The 2000 election also showed Florida to be a truly purple state—neither clearly Republican nor Democrat in presidential elections. Since the razor thin win for Bush in 2000 in Florida, each major party has won Florida’s Electoral Vote one time; Florida is one of the eight states deemed a battleground state this year.   

Florida is also a state that exhibits meaningful religious, racial, and ethnic diversity. Florida’s Hispanic population is deeply divided along party lines, where Florida’s large Cuban population is predominately Republican while other Americans of Central and South American descent are Democratic or independent. Florida’s Jewish population is third in the nation behind New York and California; in part in response to concerns about post-9/11 terror fears and a focus on U.S.-Israel relations, Florida’s Jewish population is exhibiting more partisan diversity than in the past. These differences contribute to Florida’s purple qualities.  

Florida’s purple character is also shown in its partisan schizophrenia.  An overwhelming majority of each house in the state legislature, the governor, lieutenant governor and each Cabinet member, and three-fourths of its congressional delegation, is Republican, yet voter registration in Florida puts the Democrats clearly in the lead—by 450,000 voters of the 8.7 million registered with a major party. 

These factors, taken together, explain why Florida matters so much in 2012. Florida gained House seats, and Electoral Votes, when so many states lost both, even though all but one state losing one or more seat gained in population. And, because the census is conducted once every decade, the same circumstances will be in effect for the next two election cycles.    

The winner-take-all nature of Florida’s Electoral Vote distribution, a decision made at the state level, will not likely change. Changing to a proportional Electoral Vote distribution system, such as that in place in Maine and Nebraska, might change the Florida campaign landscape in a negative way. As the size of the prize would become less certain, less money and time would be spent in Florida, coupled with less media attention, and fewer opportunities for Floridians to get “up close and personal” with political celebrities across the spectrum. That would be the cost if Florida changes its method of Electoral Vote allocation. Keeping Florida’s Electoral Vote allocation as “winner take all” means that Florida’s racial, ethnic and religious diversity, combined with its partisan schizophrenia, will keep it both purple and important.   

Fine is professor of Political Science at the University of Central Florida, Orlando.