In the wake of the US Presidential election, I’ve had several conversations about population density, Electoral College, and what representation is “fair” for all voters. One conversation I had over Thanksgiving dinner with family (yes, we managed to keep it largely civil, and people were generally willing to learn from each other and wanting to hear why others felt that way) was whether it was “fair” that different states have different Electoral College votes.
The way the numbers are turning out from the Presidential election, Hillary Clinton is ahead in the popular vote by a significant margin, but most of those votes are from one state — California. So, if everyone in California was counted, Clinton would have won. So, is it “fair” that California was unable to exert the full influence of its population?
This was one of the key factors the founding members of the United States addressed, and came up with the two-house system where high-population states get a little diminished, and low-population states get a little magnified to make sure the one doesn’t steamroll the other.
People are what they are
Let’s take an example of two regions, which have different populations:
Midlandia is a dense district, where buildings are many stories tall, so so, it has a higher population, simply due to its structure. It might be a region with apartment buildings shoulder-to-shoulder arranged in even city blocks, or a few soaring condo towers. Point being they build up, so have a smaller square footage footprint for lots of people. Outerton is more spread out, with greenspace between buildings. It may be a residential district of single-family homes, each with a large yard, or a more agricultural area where fields separate residential buildings.
Both regions are at capacity; you can’t fit more people in either without rebuilding their structures. Both regions then have problems relating to their population (for Midlandia, it might be higher crime rates, and for Outerton, it might be agricultural protection). The solutions to these problems could become ordinances or laws of that region. And politicians who run for office of governor or president over both Midlandia and Outerton make campaign promises in favor of specific proposals.
So, the politician who supports Proposal B gets the votes of Outerton residents, while the politician who supports Proposal A gets the support of Midlandia residents. But there’s more Midlandians, so they win the vote and Proposal A gets passed.
But is it Proposal A’s fault it doesn’t help Outerton folks as much as it helps Midlandians? No. Is the politician who supported it unfair to favor Proposal A over Proposal B? Probably not. By supporting Proposal A, the representative helped more of their constituents than if Proposal B had passed. But Proposal B helps the Outerton folks just as much as Proposal A helps Midlandia!
Who’s to Blame?!
As I’ve been thinking about this, to me it seems it’s not the Proposals that are bad, nor the politicians who are trying to help the most people, nor the people voting their heart for what would help them most. The issue is where the circles that define Midlandia and Outerton are drawn!
Currently, congressional districts within a state are redrawn fairly frequently. And they are drawn subjectively, but then are scrutinized thoroughly to represent people as fairly as possible.
Most congressional districts are big enough to include cities and surrounding rural areas, but that’s not true for major metropolitan areas.
Look at the square footage difference between District 8 (the majority of the southeastern portion of the state) and District 34 (downtown Los Angeles; light blue on that map). The square footage is massively different, but the populations are relatively the same; the people of District 34 can passionately vote for one proposal while the people of District 8 can vote for another, and both will be about evenly-matched.
But the same level of scrutiny hasn’t been given to the outlines of states themselves. The current state borders are remnants of how America spread westward, getting bigger and bigger states as we realized how much land was out there, but also states on the eastern edge were split apart to balance the growth prior to the civil war (Virginia, the Carolinas, and the Dakotas). But California didn’t get split up! We can’t claim gerrymandering on state line placement, but the Washington Post showed that the presidential election could have gone the other way with just four counties crossing a state line.
California has 39.14 million people living there, while the population of Virginia, West Virginia, the Carolinas, and the Dakotas combined is only 26.78 million people. The median state population is 4.53 million people (as of July 1, 2014 population estimates), meaning California would have to be split into 9 different states to dip below the median.
The United State’s square-footage has been set for some time now, and population centers are pretty well established. So is it time we had a redistricting of state lines?
So, what would it entail to redefine state boundaries? Obviously it would be a huge undertaking, and not something to be done frequently, but it would help relieve the pressure of greatly-differing populations a bunch.
Neil Freeman has already tackled this once, back in 2012, from an artist’s perspective.
His methodology started with the densest population centers and worked by county to get back to 50 states. This process doesn’t play favorites in that most everyone gets a new state name (except New York), but nearly none of the existing state lines are maintained (hard for people to re-learn), and everything is an irregular shape (hard to say “my state looks like a mitten” or whatnot).
Kevin Hayes Wilson, a mathematician and data analyst built a tool to play with adjusting state lines as he explored this problem.
But we don’t need to go with a complete redraw to alleviate some of the worst disparities of population. To evenly spread out the US population, 50 states should ideally have 6.38 million people each. Right now the spread of states away from that average is pretty big (Wyoming only has 9.15% of that average, while California is 604.47% of that average). The top seven most dense states could be split into multiple states of approximately that average (California splits into 6, Texas into 4, Florida into 3, New York into 3, Illinois into 2, Pennsylvania into 2, and Ohio into 2), for a net gain of 15 states. Then some of the least-populous states merge with their neighbors:
- Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine merge, along with 615,000 people from New York as it splits
- Rhode Island and Connecticut merge
- Delaware merges with Pennsylvania as it splits in half
- Alaska and Hawaii become part of Oregon
- North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho merge
- West Virginia and Kentucky merge
- Utah and Nevada merge
- Arkansas and Mississippi merge
- Kansas and Oklahoma merge
That removes 15 to keep the number of states at an even 50. That relieves the biggest disparities, getting the population difference down to 33.41% of average on the low end (New Mexico), and 160% of average on the high end (Michigan).
So how’s that look? 15 states merge and 15 states come into being, balancing the populations. With the populations more balanced, the measures we already have in place to give a slight boost to the smaller states and a slight crimp to the bigger states can do their job better, since the smaller states only need a slight boost to be on-par with the others.
Creating the Interstate Highway system was a major undertaking that needed nation-wide support, ripped up existing infrastructure, and likely inconvenienced a whole bunch of people, but it only had to be done once, and now provides a great benefit to travelers across the nation. I think adjusting the state lines would be a similarly large project, but wouldn’t need to be done frequently, and in the end would it be worth it to have better balance between the population of the states?