What If, America

Who would win the electoral college if state borders reflected the way we live today?

Random States of America map
An electoral map with real vote data and randomly generated borders shows a Hillary Clinton landslide west of the Rockies, where she loses only Harney, site of the Malheur occupation. From Random States of America, 2016. [Neil Freeman]

I like to think of myself as a grounded person, not one to dwell in alternate reality. But we’re here now, aren’t we? When Donald Trump assumes the presidency in five weeks, the line between unreal and all-too-real will be fully dissolved.

So as long as we’re talking about the shared fictions of a democratic republic that will elevate to its highest office a reality television star who lost the popular vote by at least 2.8 million votes, 1 we might as well consider who would win the electoral college in a kinder universe. Right?

Artist and urban planner Neil Freeman has been redrawing the United States for years. His “Electoral College Reform Map” imagined 50 states with equal population, where a vote in Mendocino counts the same as a vote in Muskogee. Last month, he released “Random States of America,” a bonkers tool that generates a new electoral map each time you click, mashing up actual voting results with arbitrary state borders. On some maps, Hillary Clinton wins with 320 electors; on others, she loses with 220. Randomness reigns. If you need further persuasion that we should elect a president by national popular vote, you’ll find it here.

But let’s not get too far from reality. I reached out to Freeman and asked him to calculate who would win the 2016 election if the states were redrawn under plausible scenarios. Call it the Random-But-Realistic-(Hey-This-Kinda-Makes-Sense!) States of America. For inspiration, we looked at maps that use big data like phone calls and commute flows to draw state borders that reflect the way Americans live today.

Here are the electoral colleges that could have been. 2

Can You Hear Me Now: Clinton 270, Trump 224

In 2011, researchers at the MIT Senseable City Lab analyzed cellphone data, revealing the social connections that bind people together across distances. Their map, “The Connected States of America,” shows that Minnesotans like to chat with friends and family in Iowa, and that people in southern Illinois call Nebraska more than they call Chicago. If we translate these “telecom communities” into an electoral map with 28 states and one federal district, Hillary Clinton wins handily. 3

Map of alternate Electoral College results by Neil Freeman
If we redraw state borders this way, according to phone call data, Hillary Clinton wins the electoral college, 270 to 224. [Map by Neil Freeman for Places Journal]

The Connected States of America, map by MIT Senseable Cities Lab
Call data communities, The Connected States of America, 2011. [MIT Senseable Cities Lab]

Road Warriors:Trump 294, Clinton 258

In a recent study, geographer Garrett Dash Nelson and data analyst Alasdair Rae traced four million commute paths to show the economic connections that unite cities and suburbs into megaregions. The researchers’ gorgeous maps went viral last week, with commute flows depicted as colorful explosions. Deep in their paper was a more prosaic map that divides the country into commuter territories. If we adapt that scheme to the electoral college, Trump takes a bite out of California and carves a path from coast to coast. 4

Map of alternate Electoral College results by Neil Freeman
If we redraw state borders this way, according to commute flows, Donald Trump wins the electoral college, 294 to 258. [Map by Neil Freeman for Places Journal]

Commuter Megaregions of the United States, map by Garrett Dash Nelson and Alasdair Rae
Commuter Megaregions of the United States, 2016. [Garrett Dash Nelson and Alasdair Rae]

El Dorado Dreaming: Clinton 271, Trump 241

Cal State geography professor George Etzel Pearcy’s 1973 map is a classic of the genre. He earnestly proposed a nation of 38 states for easier administration, accounting for population density, transportation routes, and land relief. Like many things that came out of California in the early ’70s — Governor Jerry Brown, Buckminster Fuller, Captain Beefheart — you can lay Pearcy’s map over contemporary America, and it still makes sense. Clinton’s blue firewall holds in the upper Midwest, and she flips a handle-free Florida to win a close election. 5

Map of alternate Electoral College results by Neil Freeman
If we redraw state borders this way, for easier administration, Hillary Clinton wins the electoral college, 271 to 241. [Map by Neil Freeman for Places Journal]

The Proposed Thirty-Eight States of the United States of America, map by George Etzel Pearcy
The Proposed Thirty-Eight States of the United States of America, 1973. [George Etzel Pearcy]

Fifty (Un)Equal States: Trump 280, Clinton 220

Neil Freeman’s own 2012 reform map spotlights the cruel math of voter representation. As he notes, under the current system, “the largest state [California] is 66 times as populous as the smallest [Wyoming] and has 18 times as many electoral votes.” That’s a clear failure of democracy. Freeman drew 50 states of equal population around the 50 largest cities and floated it as a “provocative design fiction.” Yet the map doesn’t fix the deeper problem, that votes are wasted in states won by large margins (which is most states, given the growing segregation of partisan voters). Trump wins this map despite losing the popular vote; Mitt Romney won it, too.

Map of alternate Electoral College results by Neil Freeman
If we redraw state borders this way, creating 50 states with equal population, Donald Trump wins the electoral college, 280 to 220. [Map by Neil Freeman for Places Journal]

Fifty States with Equal Population, map by Neil Freeman
Fifty States with Equal Population, 2012. [Neil Freeman]

A Divided Country: Clinton 270, Trump 268

It seems the sharpest split this year is between urban and rural America, but the electoral college conceals the unique dynamics in each region. In a new map for Places, Freeman organizes the country into 48 states centered around the 48 largest urban areas, such that every point in a state is closer to its urban core than to any other. (Mathematicians call this a Voronoi partition.) Clinton brings home metro Phoenix, Austin, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Raleigh, and Miami, from states that voted red. Meanwhile, the blue cities of Las Vegas, Denver, Minneapolis, Buffalo, and Baltimore — now outweighed by their hinterlands — swing to Trump. The result is a near tie in the electoral college; Clinton is saved by the 23rd Amendment, which grants representation to the District of Columbia.

Map of alternate Electoral College results by Neil Freeman
If we redraw state borders this way, based on distance to urban centers, Hillary Clinton wins the electoral college, 270 to 268. [Map by Neil Freeman for Places Journal]

What Now, America?

As E.J. Dionne wrote last week in the Washington Post, “The American system of representation, invented 229 years ago for 13 states that hugged the Atlantic shore, is more than ever out of tune with how the country’s citizens have distributed themselves.” Freeman’s maps show that even a reality-based electoral college can diverge from the popular vote. With all that’s at stake, nobody is in the mood to defend an arbitrary system.

The electoral college that matters now is the body politic, and none of us can abstain.

So is it right for conscientious electors to consider the people’s choice? Donald Trump yowls that he would have campaigned differently under a national system, and that he would have won the popular vote. That’s possible. It’s also possible that Hillary Clinton would have won this election under the current rules, if the Voting Rights Act was not gutted, if people of color were not six times likelier to face long voting lines, if election officials did not conspire to suppress black voters with “almost surgical precision” (and did not defy court remedies when they were caught). 6 Trump’s egregious lie on Thanksgiving weekend — that millions voted illegally for his opponent — is chilling precisely because of the implied threat to make them illegal next time. By jail, by Jim Crow, by retracting citizenship if necessary. Who will deny him that power?

There is no shortage of ways to map the political divisions in America — as islands and seas, as spiky towers, as a healthy body attacked by a fibrous mass. But we don’t need maps to tell us what we know in our hearts, what we see in our communities. American democracy will be tested like never before.

Every geography class studies Jorge Luis Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science,” which posits a map of the empire on a 1:1 scale. That’s the map we need to follow in the next four years. The electoral college that matters is the one with 325,129,574 individual states — the body politic — and none of us can abstain, not now.

  1. Hillary Clinton’s lead in the popular vote continues to grow. At the time of publication, it was 2.84 million, according to official results compiled by David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.
  2. Freeman’s maps use county vote totals reported by The New York Times on December 11, 2016, plus certified results for Ohio and Wisconsin. County boundaries and population data are drawn from the U.S. census. In adapting some of the source maps, Freeman georeferenced the images in QGIS and manually assigned counties. In rare cases where the source maps did not align with county borders, he made judgment calls about which state the county should belong to. He used the official apportionment algorithm to assign representatives to states; thus, small states are overweighted, as in the current system. Hawaii, Alaska, and Washington D.C. retain their current borders and number of electors, except on the 50 Equal States map, where Alaska and Hawaii are folded into the continental states of Rainier and Orange.
  3. There are a large number of orphan counties on the MIT map, where the researchers did not have enough call data. Freeman assigned these counties to nearby states and created a new state from the large rural area that extends over the High Plains.
  4. On their map of commute flows, Rae and Dash left a large unaffiliated area in the West. Freeman created a new state from the part of this area that extends across Idaho, Montana, and the Dakotas. The unaffiliated counties in Oregon, California, and Nevada were assigned to nearby states to preserve contiguity.
  5. Pearcy divided Alaska into two administrative states, but Freeman left its current borders intact, consistent with the other maps in this series.
  6. And … all the rest. I don’t discount the likelihood that Russian hacking and rogue FBI actions cost Clinton the election. My point is that she would have won the election despite those subversions, if the right to vote were equally protected for all citizens.
Josh Wallaert and Neil Freeman, “What If, America,” Places Journal, December 2016. Accessed 03 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/161212

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