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If the U.S. Looked Like This Map, Romney Would Have Won

A fun, fair attempt at Electoral College reform is still deeply flawed

It was easy to be offended by last month’s movement, among several GOP-led states that went for Obama in 2012, to reapportion electoral votes by congressional district, but it was hard to be surprised. After all, it was just a self-interested scheme to rig presidential elections, and no one mistook it for a serious effort to correct problems with the Electoral College. But a fun new project by Neil Freeman to redraw the fifty states with equal population shows that even an ostensibly fair attempt to correct those problems can still create bias toward Republicans.

Creating fifty states anchored in large cities would actually make the system even less equitable than it is now. In fact, it would be nearly as biased toward Republicans as the reapportionment scheme: Based on Freeman's map, Romney would have won the Electoral College in one of the closest races in history, even while losing the popular vote by nearly 4 percentage points.

Why? Because cities hold such a large proportion of the population, turning the country into fifty equally populated states requires that either cities become city-states, or get split up among multiple states. The designers of the fifty equal states wanted to preserve regional integrity and chose the former, resulting in a number of metropolitan states around New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and large, rural states anchored by smaller cities, like Austin or Birmingham.

But Democrats win cities by a larger margin than Republicans win rural areas, so any map that divides states or districts along lines of urbanization will work to the relative advantage of Republicans. For instance, Obama would have won the city-state of New York with more than 80 percent of the vote, and more than 70 percent in the states of Chicago, Los Angeles, and what Freeman has named "Yerba Buena"—the San Francisco Bay Area, naturally. Romney, in contrast, wouldn’t have won a single state with more than 70 percent of the vote.1

As a result, Obama would have wasted millions of votes gaining huge margins in blue states, allowing Romney to win the Electoral College by a narrow margin. The election would have come down to the critical states of Susquehanna (home to Baltimore and much of central Pennsylvania) and Pocono (northeastern Pennsylvania, northern New Jersey, and rural southern New York). In each state, Romney would have won by .01 percentage points—making it the closest election in the history of the country. In comparison, Romney probably would have needed to win either Pennsylvania or Colorado to win the presidency last November, and Obama carried those states by nearly 5.4 points.2 

The project to create fifty equally populated states is framed as an Electoral College reform because it would correct one of the best known biases in the Electoral College: the system’s bias toward small states. But the Electoral College is even more biased toward candidates that efficiently distribute their share of the popular vote to win a larger number of states by a smaller margin.3

In effect, candidates "waste" votes by winning more than 50 percent of the vote in a state. In the new equally populated states, the same wasted-vote bias that discourages regional candidates works strongly to the disadvantage of Democrats, who would instead waste votes in the city-states. The results of Freeman's experiment are a reminder that the Democratic advantage in the Electoral College is a product of luck—only a few quick changes would give the GOP an edge.

  1. These estimates are imperfect because some counties are divided between multiple states. To compensate, these estimates assume that each state would receive a proportionate share of a divided county’s vote. This method, however, would tend to underestimate Obama’s performance in the more urban state, and overestimate it in a rural state.

  2. Under the proposed map, new swing states would replace many old ones. The residents of Ohio, for instance, would finally get some time off from television ads, while new states in south Texas, Atlanta, and Southern California would be extremely competitive. Places like Wisconsin, most of the southwest, and the Tidewater state of Virginia and North Carolina would remain hotly contested.

  3. With the current 50 states, this tendency acts as a strong check against regionalism—it would prevent, for instance, a candidate from winning the presidency by, for example, winning 100 percent of the vote in the South and 25 percent of the vote elsewhere.