Fair’s Fair: An Interview with Neil Freeman


At Work


Way back in 2004, the artist Neil Freeman debuted a novel idea on his Web site, Fake is the New Real: a map of the United States, redrawn so that each state has a more or less equal population. This, Freeman proffered, would correct the current problem with our electoral college system, in which sparsely populated states wield tremendous political influence for no real justifiable reason.

He remade the map in 2010 to reflect current census data, but took the idea to its most exhaustive and visually impressive heights in December 2012. Since the country had just survived yet another election where Ohio and Florida were agreed to be the only states of any import; since the governments of certain conservative-leaning states went out of their way to make voting a nearly constitution-violating ordeal for many minority populations; and since the last few years have seen many congressional districts gerrymandered out of political contention, I was touched by Freeman’s effort to envision an American political process that was, to put it plainly, more fair.

“The states of the United States are too disparate in size and influence,” he introduced the 2012 map. “The largest state is sixty-six times as populous as the smallest and has eighteen times as many electoral votes.” I e-mailed Freeman to discuss his problem with that reality, and how his map could theoretically change it.

You’re pretty vague in the artist’s statement to this piece, saying only “reforms are needed.” What compelled you in 2004 to start this project? What do you ultimately think it says about our politics?

The project grew out of two goals, which have tended to get braided and knotted over time. The first is to visualize the population distribution of the country in a novel way. The second is to critique the electoral college.

The roots of the project go back to the early days of the 2004 presidential campaign. The 2000 election made the limitations of the electoral college painfully obvious. Not only does the system make the popular vote irrelevant, but the college gives different levels of influence and power to citizens of different states based on competitiveness and House apportionment.

There was a fair degree of momentum to reform the electoral college after the 2000 election, and nothing happened. The electoral college is deeply naturalized into our political narrative, and rational discourse seems to have little ability to dislodge it. I hope that a more creative approach to the electoral college helps to lay bare its shortcomings and the possibility of effective reform.

Presidential campaigns are also a moment when everyone pays close attention to maps of states, and the weaknesses of state maps as a visual tool become apparent. After the 2000 and 2004 election, a county-by-county map that showed that the country as a mostly red country with little blue bits on the coast began showing up as a proof of the irrelevance of the Democratic vote. This is downright silly, and it really saddens me that people confuse geographical space with population density. If—when—we get rid of the electoral college, one of the benefits will be the irrelevance of geographical state-by-state maps for illustrating campaign trends.

To tie that up—by redrawing the political map, I hope to draw attention to the limitations of our political system, and the ways that we commonly represent it.

A big leap—in the map’s complexity, its shapes and its names—occurred between the 2010 version and the 2012 one. What prompted that? And why specifically is the southeast corridor, roughly Florida up through Virginia, so rearranged?

The map improved because I learned a lot about cartography in the intervening decade. The shapes of the states changed because I revamped by method. For the first map, I tried to preserve state outlines as much as possible. I had to designate the state for almost every county in the country by hand. When I started it, I thought that just a little dividing and recombining would yield the new map. It ended up taking a lot longer, and I nearly gave up on it many times.

For the updated project, I decided that I would completely ignore state boundaries, and center each state on a major city. I also tried to follow geophysical regions, too. To make things easier, I wrote an algorithm to assign counties. I ran it dozens of times, each time tweaking the initial cities and the rules for assignments. Eventually, I got fifty workable rough groups. I did a final pass by hand, tweaking boundaries and dividing counties along census tract lines when possible.

When it came to the naming, I made the arbitrary decision not to reuse any names from the first map. Naming states is fun.

The new map of the Southeast is partially because of the introduction of metro areas as a guide, and the abandonment of state lines. Also, the Southeast is one of the areas where physical geography helped shaped the states on the new map. The fall line that runs through those states divides the lowland, coastal Tidewater from the upland, hilly Piedmont. That physical difference has an economic and cultural resonance that extends back to the initial waves of European and African settlement.

What else guided you topographically? What other natural lines seemed important to preserve? What seemed least important?

I tried to roughly follow the line between the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain uplands. I tried to contain the Susquehanna River watershed in the state of that name. I purposefully kept the coastline from Cape Cod up to the Bay of Fundy intact. I made many other decisions at the micro level—those are the ones that stand out at the larger scale.

How thoroughly have you considered the political effects of this idea? I.e., who would have won the most recent presidential election, or what coalitions might be different?

I was tickled that the New Republic and FiveThirtyEight both gave the map a careful rundown. I’m disappointed that both writers acted as if a new map would have little effect on the results. Turnout was eight percentage points higher in contested states versus noncontested ones. With a different map, there would be different results. This gets to the fundamental unfairness of the electoral college—the way our politics depend only on lines that matter little when it comes to the national issues that presidents face.

You’re saying that, in the last election, voters turned out at higher rates in battleground areas, and a realignment of electoral power would upend the current idea of “battlegrounds” altogether and thus change the trends in turnout? Do I have that right?


Do you think this redistricting could have any effect on voter turnout generally? As in, would a more “fair” balance of electoral power make Americans more or less engaged politically?

All things being equal, a simpler, fairer electoral system could only increase participation. I don’t know if my map would do that, but it might.

What change do you think would cause the most cultural tumult? My guess is Ogalalla, since I don’t know how Denverites and rural Montanans would get along as a district.

I think that the biggest cultural change would be with the profusion of city-states. Many states overrepresent rural areas when it comes to divvying up funding for infrastructure projects and other spending. The alignment of metro areas and states would mean that decision-making power in land use and transportation would shift away from rural areas, which would probably mean less sprawl and more livable cities.

What do you mean by “livable,” and how would a new balance of electoral power between rural and urban areas engender that?

I probably shouldn’t have said livable at all, since livable cities is a buzzword that can mean a lot of things, but is often associated with brain-dead Richard Florida–style marketing to the “creative class.” I’m making that gesture where one puts one’s finger in one’s mouth to indicate how something disgusts one.

When I say livable, I mean to say that cars are awful. When I say sprawl, I only mean auto-based development. I don’t have any problem with new houses, I just have a problem with houses that can only be reached by car. Many big cities have lately been catching onto the idea that not every decision about public space and transportation needs to be made based on how it will affect cars. State government is behind the times on this. Again, would redrawing the lines change that? No.

Your Web site lists many other ongoing, conceptual projects, but none quite so—forgive the term—philosophically ambitious as this. What’s your day job and/or artistic background, and did you have any cartographic training before this project began?

I don’t know if the Reform map is the most philosophically ambitious. It’s the one that’s the most explicated.

In my fake life I work in the intersection of urban planning and technology. I have a master’s degree in urban planning, which entailed learning a lot of things about making maps and presenting visual information. My art background goes back to an intense early interest in filling up reams of tractor-feed paper with scribbles and extends through a bachelor’s degree in visual art. (I double-majored, with mathematics.)

What do you think is the greatest barrier to this kind of “fairness” in American politics today—the default filibustering posture in the Senate, gerrymandering of congressional districts, our outmoded electoral college? Something else?

That’s like asking which of my children I hate the most. I hate them all equally!

The problem with the House is less gerrymandering than single-member, winner-take-all districts, along with a too-large incumbent bonus. I would love to see a larger House, and some states experimenting with proportional voting.

P. S.: I don’t have any kids.