What If We Redrew State Boundaries?

A boy points to Missouri on CSPAN's 2012 US Presidential election electoral map at the American Presidential Experience exhibit September 3, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
National Journal
Alex Seitz-Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Oct. 31, 2013, 5 p.m.

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!”

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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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