Free cities–what would change?

How would American politics change if our largest cities became separate states?

This month I’ve been reading the Federalist Papers. I didn’t exactly plan to read these important political documents just before the election; they are part of a multi-year chronological reading through my library of philosophers, and they just happened to land in this summer’s reading. This weekend I covered the chapters where James Madison compares the new republic of thirteen states to some of the republics of earlier history (chiefly in Greece and Rome) and some of those that existed at the time in Europe (including Switzerland and the Netherlands). Speaking about what was then the Holy Roman Empire, Madison referred to “free cities” within the empire. That sent my mind down a rabbit hole, wondering what would happen in the largest cities in the United States became “free cities,” separated from the states to which they now are attached and treated as distinct states.

We know that a massive political divide exists between rural votes and urban voters. Many of the former prefer Donald Trump and the Republican Party; many of the latter prefer Joseph Biden and the Democratic Party.  I asked myself, would the national electoral and political scene be much different if the largest cities were “free cities” in the sense that they became their own states?

Before looking at any maps or population numbers, I arbitrarily chose the round number of one million residents for separating cities from their states. As a result, nine cities became free states: New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Philadelphia, San Antonio, San Diego, and Dallas. Texas, then, would lose three cities, California would lose two, and New York, Illinois, Arizona, and Pennsylvania would each lose one city.

Legislatively, the House of Representatives would remain largely unchanged, although redrawing congressional maps to keep them inside or outside these nine cities would be a major project. Meanwhile, the United States Senate would gain eighteen new Senators, nine from each city. The electoral college would also increase by eighteen voters. New York City would have fourteen electoral votes; Los Angeles and Chicago would each have six; Phoenix, San Diego, Philadelphia, and Houston would have four; and Dallas and San Antonio would have three.

I then studied the electoral map for the 2016 presidential election. Hillary Clinton would have won eight of the nine free cities, losing only Phoenix; however, Donald Trump would have gained fourteen electoral votes from non-Chicago Illinois. The final result of the election would be unchanged.

I also looked at the electoral map for the 2000 presidential election. Al Gore won the largest cities—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia—but he trailed in the other five. Moreover George W. Bush would have gained electoral votes in both Illinois and Pennsylvania, making the cliff-hanging results in Florida far less significant.

I also looked at Senatorial elections for the past three cycles. The Senate appears to be evenly split in this new arrangement, with a slight advantage to the Democratic Party—sixty Senators to fifty-eight for the Republican Party.

Clearly election campaigning would be different under this system. Presidential candidates would have to refocus their attention; campaigns for the Senate would be very different in these nine cities and in the six affected states. Altogether, though, I was surprised to discover how little the outcomes changed with this major reshaping of the political system. My weekend in the rabbit hole did not turn the country upside down. J.