A series of stunning maps published today by Bloomberg News visualize the various land uses in the U.S. – urban vs. rural and much more – that make America such a diverse economic landscape.
But the maps also provide geographic evidence that might weigh heavily in the ongoing debate over the nation’s Electoral College system of electing presidents.
Most politically astute Americans have seen the map (above) that demonstrates the county-by-county vote in 2016. Red is Republican, a county where a majority voted for President Trump; Blue is a Democratic county that favored Hillary Clinton.
The huge swath of Red counties on this map, from the South to the Plains States to the Rocky Mountains, bolsters an argument among the GOP that the Electoral College preserves cultural and political multiplicity and prevents big cities on the East and West Coasts from dominating presidential elections.
Yet, the research and subsequent map-making by Bloomber’s Dave Merrill and Lauren Leatherby unintentionally but dramatically illustrates how the Electoral College system – providing a minimum of three electoral votes for each state – establishes a disproportionate benefit for states that mostly consist of barren territories with few people.
In fact, much of rural America consists of farmland; pastures and grazing areas; infrastructure such as airports, freeways and military bases; forests; and state and national parks. Less obvious large land categories nationwide include cemeteries, golf courses, marsh lands, deserts and wilderness areas.
In other words, when viewed proportionately, the seven states that have three electoral votes, based on their two U.S. senators and one U.S. representative, consist mostly of uninhabited areas that have far fewer public policy issues to tackle.
More cows than people
Among the many staggering features Bloomberg discovered was that the major occupants on 41 percent of U.S. land are cows. That livestock, particularly in the Plains States and out West, dominate pastures and cropland used to produce feed.
As a result, a very small state geographically, such as Connecticut, with 3.6 million residents and numerous cities, freeways, bridges, commuter trains, ocean ports, housing complexes and high-tech manufacturing, has seven electoral votes.
Montana, one of the largest states geographically, with a population of 1 million, is known for its nature preserves and wide-open spaces. Among its 10 largest cities is Billings (114,773 population), the only town in the three-digit range, down to the ninth and 10th ranked municipalities, both of which have less than 10,000 inhabitants. Still, Montana has three electoral votes, just a little less than half of Connecticut’s total.
The two-century debate over the Electoral College took to the forefront in 2000 after Al Gore won the popular vote and lost the presidency. Clearly, the endless agitation over the Founders’ method of selecting a president jumped several notches when Clinton won the popular vote and lost the Electoral College in 2016.
Group seeks to circumvent Electoral College
The Bloomberg data could be good news for a movement working to undermine the Electoral College known as the National Popular Vote. Without amending the U.S. Constitution, the group is trying to cobble together an interstate compact in which states would vow to give their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote, regardless of the presidential outcome in their state.
After studying the 1.9 billion acres of land in the 48 contiguous states, Bloomberg drew a few basic conclusions:
- Agriculture takes up about a fifth of U.S. land while more than one-third of the overall acreage is used for pasture — by far the largest land-use type in the lower 48 states. And nearly 25 percent of that acreage is administered by the federal government, with most situated in the West. That land is open to grazing for a fee.
- Even though urban areas make up just 3.6 percent of the total size of the 48 contiguous states, four in five Americans live and work there. With so much of the U.S. population in urbanized areas, these localities contribute an outsize amount to the economy. The 10 most productive metropolitan areas alone contributed about 40 percent of U.S. GDP in 2016.
- The U.S. is rapidly becoming more urban, at an average rate of about 1 million additional acres a year. That’s the equivalent of adding new urban area annually that’s the size of Los Angeles, Houston and Phoenix combined.
The argument that the Electoral College is not a universal democratic system is bolstered by the intense land-use variations from sea to shining sea. Previously, basic state-by-state population figures had established the foundation for an anti-Electoral College offensive based on one-person, one vote.
Wyoming the poster child for change
For example, Wyoming, which has a population (579,000), below the other 49 states and D.C. — and even dozens of metropolitan areas — receives the minimum three electoral votes, though its numbers fall short of the nationwide standard for each congressional seat earned.
So, Wyoming receives one presidential electoral vote for every 193,000 people. Texas, in contrast, receives one electoral vote for every 685,000 people. And, as residents in California eagerly and angrily point out, a vote in Wyoming for president is essentially worth four times as much as each vote by a Californian.
Imagine if the unmistakable trend toward urban/suburban living, especially among Millennials, continues to the point that Wyoming’s population erodes substantially. At that point, the Cowboy State could hold a six- or seven-fold unfair advantage per-person in presidential voting over the most populous states.
Another factor to consider, beyond the generic population movement toward metropolitan areas, is that family farmers and ranchers are experiencing a reluctance among their kids and grandkids to stay put and maintain the family business in the coming decades
Yet, several arguments that the Electoral College still serves us best can logically be formulated. Perhaps most obvious among them is that dozens of small states would be ignored by presidential campaigns and have virtually no say in election outcomes if the nation switched to a winner-take-all system based on the national popular vote.
From a more practical sense, in the nation’s current hyper-partisan atmosphere, Republicans would surely revolt if their most reliable Red states were reduced to asterisks in the vote count. After all, if geography – state border lines – no longer mattered, voters in states such as Wyoming, Montana, Alaska, the Dakotas, Vermont and Delaware would essentially sit on the sidelines as spectators during presidential election campaigns – even moreso than they do already.