Geography as a Failed Unit of Representation: Why Fifty States of Equal Population Is No Solution for Presidential Elections

by Andrea Levien // Published February 15, 2013

This week, an alternative map of the United States has been floating around the Internet, one that some have suggested would create a more fair and equal Electoral College. Created by artist Neil Freeman, the map redraws state lines so that all fifty states have equal populations and are both compact and geographically intuitive. The implicit idea behind the proposal is that what's wrong with presidential elections is the unequal population of states.

The project is certainly an amusing thought experiment - especially given some of the more creative names for new states, like "Shiprock" and "Firelands" (less exciting is the proposed state of "Tampa Bay"). But as an improvement to the Electoral College, the plan is woefully inadequate. Its failure is quite revealing for how so many pundits fail to grasp the value of the national popular vote and think that redistricting is what's broken in congressional elections rather than districting itself.

 

That's not a criticism of Freeman, who readily admits that his plan is not a serious proposal and even links to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact for a reform plan that is. However, a few commentators who have picked up on Freeman's map have been more enamored with this "solution" than the plan merits. Robert Krulwich of NPR described it as "a crazy but rational solution to our Electoral College problem," and Jim Fallows of the Atlantic similarly lauded it as a "fix."

The problem is that uneven population of states is not what's wrong with the current Electoral College system. Sure, the large state of California has 66 times more people than the small state of Wyoming, yet only 18 times more electoral votes. But the campaigns don't care. To them, a vote in California counts the same as a vote in Wyoming: they're equally worthless.

The real problems with our current presidential election system arise from two factors: dividing the nation into geographic units (states) and allocating Electoral College votes in those states on a winner-take-all basis. It's the same problem we have with U.S. House elections.

Take the fact that this new system would be even more likely to experience a wrong-winner election than our troubled system today. According to Michael Barone, Barack Obama would have won only 21 of the new states in the Freeman map, with Mitt Romney winning 29. So even though Obama defeated Romney by nearly 5 million votes in the national popular vote, his 51% - 47% edge in the popular vote would have turned into a 43% - 58% deficit in this version of the Electoral College. Although all votes would be weighted equally, this system would have yielded election results entirely unrepresentative of what the country actually wanted.

In addition, it would do nothing to halt the inequality of treatment that voters across the nation. In 2012, only ten of our 50 states drew a major party presidential candidate for a post-convention campaign event, and those same states drew more than 99% of all presidential campaign spending in the seven months after Mitt Romney became the presumptive Republican nominee.

From a cursory look at these new states, it seems that the great majority of them would remain uncompetitive, from the new safe Democratic states of Throgs Neck and Yerba Buena to the new safe Republican states of Salt Lake and Ogalalla. All this new map would do is alter a few of the areas where the candidates spend their time campaigning. By no means would it give all Americans an equal say in who becomes the next president.

In fact, the plan bears a remarkable similarity to another idea that is being more seriously touted as a fair solution to U.S. congressional elections: independent redistricting commissions. Backers of independent redistricting usually conceive of it as being governed by nonpartisan criteria of equal population, compactness, existing political divisions, and cultural coherence. Nonpartisan or not, however, any map using winner-take-all districts is necessarily going to favor one party simply due to the political geography of how Democrats and Republicans are dispersed throughout the country. It's also going to leave most voters as spectators in elections.

Just like Freeman's equal state population map, a U.S. congressional map of only single-member district seats drawn by independent redistricting commissions could easily result in wrong-winner elections. As FairVote has shown, the 2012 election would likely still have produced a Republican House despite Democrats receiving more votes nationwide even had the congressional map been drawn with "nonpartisan" lines. Emory University's Alan Abramowitz last week estimated in Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball that Democrats would need more than 56% of the two-party vote in the 2014 election to win a simple majority of House seats.

The fascination with Freeman's map as an actual improvement to our elections (rather than as a cool art project) highlights the ubiquity of an irrational obsession for geographic representation and making where you live more important than what you think. Winner-take-all elections using geographic districts can never be truly fair, no matter how the lines are drawn.

If the fans of Freeman's map really want to reform the Electoral College in a way that would make every vote equal, they should throw their support behind the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would ensure that every vote, in every corner of the nation, would count the same. To achieve the same objective in congressional elections, reformers should embrace fair voting forms of proportional representation in addition to independent redistricting commissions.