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Innovation Works

What If We Redrew State Boundaries?

(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages)

photo of Alex Seitz-Wald
October 31, 2013

Any attempt to reform the way Americans vote for their representatives in Washington runs into a major roadblock: the states. Federalism is a wonderful idea, but it can't be entirely realized with the current map. States are meant to act as "guardians of a common interest," as James Madison wrote in Federalist 46, but common interests—whether economic, cultural, or political—are often split by antiquated and arbitrary state lines.

When the framers sat down in 1787, there were just 13 states, each with its own history, government, economy, and culture. Today, we have 50 states carved into one another, often capriciously. The map is a product of conflicting land grants from foreign powers, long-forgotten political battles (including some violent ones), historical oddities, and limited surveying capacity. States are gerrymandered just as badly as House districts, but they don't have the benefit of being redrawn after every census. If the framers knew then what we know now, there's no way they'd envision today's state setup as the "more perfect union."

Take New York City. The country's largest and most important metropolitan area is split needlessly across the three states, complicating everything from transportation to taxation. By any reasonable cartography, Southern New York, Northern New Jersey, and Western Connecticut would all be one state; the city's five boroughs have no business being associated with people north of Dutchess County. "This city is ruled entirely by the hayseed legislators at Albany," Tammany Hall boss George Washington Plunkitt complained in his infamous 1905 booklet on political philosophy. This is what happens when geographic boundaries such as rivers are allowed to determine political destinies.

 

Then there were the political scores that shaped state lines. Congress carved Nevada out of the Utah Territory when prospectors discovered silver there, because Washington didn't want the Mormons, with whom officials were feuding over polygamy, to reap the riches. Republicans in Washington rushed Nevada to statehood just eight days before the 1864 presidential election because President Lincoln wanted to pick up a few more electoral votes, even though the territory had about 20,000 fewer residents than the population requirement applied to other states. Nevada then gained the water-rich southern spit that now holds Las Vegas from Arizona when Congress punished the Grand Canyon territory for siding with the Confederacy. Texas gave up thousands of square miles to pay off debts to Washington and then surrendered the swath that became Oklahoma's panhandle so it could keep its slaves after the Compromise of 1850. Michigan's Upper Peninsula should plainly be part of Wisconsin, but Congress ceded it to the former state after Michigan's militia went to war with Ohio over the area around Toledo (no one died, but nine land surveyors were taken hostage). Delaware has a weird and impractical semicircular northern border. And the list goes on and on, as Mark Stein details in his 2008 book, How the States Got Their Shape. It's no wonder there are at least a dozen active state secession movements across the country, from California to western Maryland.

Redrawing the map is hardly a new idea. John Wesley Powell, the famed 19th-century explorer and the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, proposed divvying up the West based on watersheds. In 1973, (John Wesley Powell)California State University geography professor George Etzel Pearcy proposed that 38 states be based on metro areas. A few years ago, blogger and cartographer Rob Lammle updated Pearcy's map based on 2000 census data. (Rob Lammle)

Northwestern University theoretical physicist Dirk Brockmann used data from WheresGeorge.com, the website that tracks the flow of $1 bills, to propose a map of "effective boundaries," which reflect the economic relationships and human travel patterns embedded in the movement of cash. One could even use maps of sports-team loyalties as a proxy for cultural and commercial connections between major cities and their surroundings.

Last year, Neil Freeman, an urban planner by day and an artist by night, created a map that went viral online. It reimagined the United States divided between 50 states of roughly equal population (about 6,175,000 per state). "It makes it so all the states have something in common," Freeman says, noting that it also solves the problems of the Electoral College and the Senate. "But there are an infinite number of interesting ways you could do it." (Neil Freeman)

Any sensible map, says author Colin Woodard, should ignore the existing political borders in favor of the country's latent cultural fault lines that developed organically over hundreds of years of colonialism and expansion. "There has never been one America but several Americas, each with their own cultural values and unique takes on what the American experiment should be," says Woodard, the author of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. New England Yankees, for instance, have a communitarian streak dating back to the days when their Puritan ancestors crossed the Atlantic in search of a theological utopia. Meanwhile, the Scots-Irish who populated the remote hollers of Appalachia brought with them a fiery libertarianism evident in today's tea-party movement. (Colin Woodard)

Woodard's map explains the difference between coastal Portland (the Left Coast) and Oregon's conservative interior (the Far West); or Corpus Christi, Texas (Deep South), and El Paso (El Norte). If you look at a map of the 2008 election, almost the entire country turned bluer, except for one swatch that pretty neatly conforms to Woodard's Greater Appalachia "nation." Over 80 percent of the 30 or so lawmakers who made up the "shutdown caucus" represent districts in either Woodard's Appalachia, Deep South, or Far West, all of which are inherently skeptical of government.

Ohio is the quintessential swing state because, Woodard says, it's partitioned. The state's northeast was once part of Connecticut, so it's populated by Yankee settlers who did things like found Oberlin College. Moving south, there's a strip of peaceable Midwesterners living in what Woodward calls The Midlands, and then farther south you get to Appalachia, the political opposite of Yankeedom. "Those two things do not work together at all, and yet they both ended up in the same state," he said.

And mapmakers may want to consider more than just states. As long as the continent has had separate Anglophone regions, reformers have attempted to unite them. The first major offensive of the newly formed Continental Army in 1775 was to invade Canada to "liberate" the Quebecois from British rule. (The campaign ended in a disastrous defeat for the Americans at Quebec City.) Journalist John O'Sullivan, who coined the term "manifest destiny," envisioned American expansion to include our neighbors to the north.

After World War II, as the two countries grew closer militarily and economically, Canadian Prime Minister William Mackenzie King reportedly floated the idea of a full merger in private conversations. And unification is the prospect of a new book by Canadian-American business writer Diane Francis, a columnist for the Toronto-based National Post, called Merger of the Century: Why Canada and America Should Become One Country.

Both countries are facing existential problems, she says. For Canada, it is its small, aging population, and an inability to protect its vast resources from "wolves at the door"—namely China and Russia—with a navy of just 8,500 seamen (a single U.S. Nimitz-class aircraft carrier boasts 6,000 sailors). In exchange, the U.S. gets "energy independence, national security, millions of jobs, business opportunities, 35 million educated workers, and a complete predominance as the world's energy, tech, mining, and minerals superpower," Francis says. "And we would end the logjam in Washington!"

True, Canadian conservatives (mostly in Alberta) don't have the same fiery distrust of government as Americans to the south do. Our framers had just come through a violent revolution against a distant king, but Canada's accommodating relationship with colonialism ended only in the 20th century, which helps explain its citizens' more amenable views of the state. The country's motto, after all, is, "Peace, order, and good government"—something we could probably use a bit more of. Francis rehearses a range of options from a simple monetary union to full-on integration, where under the Constitution's Article IV Canada's 13 provinces and territories would be ceded to Washington as new states. (Quebec can decide if it wants to come along or become a semiautonomous territory like Puerto Rico. And sorry, Francis says, Mexico isn't invited yet. With a different language, a raging drug war, higher poverty, and lower education rates, "it's not ready for prime time.")

We take for granted that some states are constantly at war with themselves, over politics and resources and culture, but why should we? Why not let people have state borders that allow them to create a government in their image? It's uncomfortable to think about, naturally, thanks to the long shadow of secession and the Civil War, but as long a new map wouldn't hurt anyone, it's worth considering. We promote the right to self-determination abroad; why not at home?

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