A different set of states

I grew up in Illinois, went to college in Iowa and have since worked in three different South Dakota cities.

But under a fun and experimental art project by Neil Freeman, none of that is true. In his world, I grew up in the state of Chicago, moved to the western border of Sangamon for college, then spent three years in the vast northern state of Ogalalla before moving to northwestern Nodaway.

Freeman came up with his map as a thought experiment about reforming the Electoral College, where voters in different states have different amounts of say in presidential elections. So he redrew state borders to create 50 brand new states, each one containing exactly the same population:

This sort of experimental cartography excites me more than is perhaps strictly rational. While wholly implausible as a practical proposal (people are resistant to change, let alone wholesale revisions of hundreds of years of tradition like this), as a thought experiment it makes you reconsider how our lines on maps relate to human and physical geography.

In South Dakota, for example, Sioux Falls is the dominant metropolitan area, occupying an ever-growing role in the state’s economy and governance. In this new proposal, it would be a peripheral city, the fifth-largest city in its state behind the two Kansas Cities (no longer divided by state boundaries), Omaha, Lincoln and Des Moines. Most of the rest of South Dakota, including my former homes of Pierre and Rapid City, would now be part of the rural Ogalalla, with its capital in Cheyenne and its population center even farther away in Denver. That’s an 10-hour drive from Bismarck, the current capital of North Dakota, to its new capital. Indeed, more than half the population of this new state would be clustered in its southwestern corner, in the Colorado Springs to Cheyenne I-25 corridor.

Unlike other attempts at redrawing state boundaries, Freeman’s map is based on existing regions and cultural ties. In some places, this equal-population state map would make more sense — cities like Chicago and New York would now be able to enact policies focused on their urban needs instead of being yoked to vast rural areas. Washington and Oregon, divided between their urban coastlines and rural interiors, would be cloven in two — and tied to even more remote halves, though if Hawaii belongs with any state, perhaps one centered around bohemian Portland is an ideal cultural fit. The division of Texas (reflecting in some ways earlier proposals, such as Nate Silver’s split of Texas into five separate states) keeps each successor state focused around an urban-cultural center — San Antonio’s Hispanic-heavy Chinati, Austin’s central Big Thicket, the coastal Houston, and Dallas’s dense Trinity. Other chunks would be hewn off, with the panhandle part of a vast southwestern state called Shiprock with its capital at Santa Fe, northern chunks centered around Oklahoma City’s Muskogee, and parts of the southeast tied to the bayou-heavy Atchafalaya.

Other parts of this proposal illustrate the folly of trying to divide up maps with a one-size-fits-all approach. The earlier analysis of Ogalalla, a state so large that half its area is a full day’s drive away from the capital and population center, is indicative. Such distances aren’t impossible — Alaska makes do with such enormous size — but are surely not ideal. There’s no particular reason people in urban Denver and remote North Dakota should be together — and 11 hours of reasons why they shouldn’t be. Any attempt to draw a map on the basis of population will inevitably short-change those areas without much population, of which America has many, particularly in the arid West.

Of course, this is all ignoring the stated purpose of the map, reforming the Electoral College by giving each state equal population. As Freeman acknowledges, there are far easier ways to reform the Electoral College if you want to than ripping up maps that have stood for centuries.

But even the flaws of a map like this are useful and educational, highlighting the virtues as well as the vices of our current boundaries.

UPDATE: Michael Barone calculated that from the standard of electoral fairness, this map is actually a regression. In the 2012 election, Barack Obama won 51 percent of the popular vote and 62 percent of the electoral vote (which tends to exaggerate narrow popular victories). But under the Freeman map, Romney would have won an estimated 29 of the 50 states, while Obama picked up just 21. In other words, Romney would have won the election despite losing the popular vote. Why? Because in the current system, Democrats win a lot of electoral votes by virtue of winning the votes of the large cities that dominate those states. The Freeman map, by severing big cities from their bigger states, means Democrats have a lot of wasted votes — they win the state of Chicago in a landslide, but lose electoral votes in the former downstate Illinois that used to go to Democrats. If both parties’ strengths were evenly distributed around the country, this map might be fairer. But they’re not.

For more such experimental cartography, check out the blog Strange Maps. In the meantime, I may have to finally give this book a read.