In October 2019, in the lead-up to his impeachment trial, President Donald Trump tweeted a map of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with results shown at the county level using the standard partisan color convention. The map — a sea of red, with the words “Try to impeach this” — generated an uproar, because it was highly misleading: The rural counties that supported Trump represent a lot of land mass, but don’t have nearly as many people as the urban ones that voted for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Their numbers were concentrated, just as most of the support for this year’s Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, is likely to be.
1:05 PM · Oct 1, 2019
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That infamous lesson in misleading maps is worth revisiting, because newscasts, websites and social media are likely to be full of similar-looking ones after the Nov. 3 election. Choropleth maps — or maps that use color, shading or patterns to show quantitative differences — are some of the most common ways to visualize how counties as well as states are voting, even though they rarely come with the important disclaimer that land doesn’t vote. In a year where uncertainty is the only certainty, a critical eye towards election-related graphics will serve truth-seeking readers well — as will a look at how other kinds of voting maps are underpinning the election in critical parts of the U.S.
“You can tell very different stories from the same data, just by making different decisions about how you map it,” said Kenneth Field, a cartographer at Esri. After the 2012 presidential election, Field turned the dataset of county-level results into 21 different maps. In 2016, he did it again, generating 48 maps. This year, Field has been working on a book, Thematic Mapping, that compiles his 2016 maps and adds a few extra dozen to the lot. Set to come out in January, the book aims to demonstrate how mapmakers’ choices can make a powerful difference in how maps are understood by readers.
For example, a map shading only the counties that flipped from one party to the other shows the pocket of the country that swung to the GOP, surprising some pollsters and giving Trump the critical edge in the electoral vote. Some of those counties are in play this year as well.
“I like political maps in the sense that they come around so often — so it’s a little bit of a job security, if you’re interested in making those kinds of maps,“ Field said. Indeed, visualizing election results through maps is atradition that goes back to the 19th century. In recent elections, the maps have become a kind of Super Bowl for newsroom graphics departments competing for the millions of viewers glued to election news on screens around the world, and they’ve gotten more original every four years. To solve the population density/land mass issue, many major online publications have switched from using maps to using cartograms, which replace geographic units (such as states) with abstract shapes to better reveal differences in scale.
That includes Bloomberg News, where graphics developer Allison McCartney and graphics editor Mira Rojanasakul have been updating their election-day assets since early summer. Though Bloomberg had visualized the 2016 presidential election as a geographic map, in 2018 the team built its first election cartogram in the event of a “blue wave” in the House of Representatives, to show how population drives the number and balance of seats up for grabs. This year, they built another cartogram for the electoral vote and updated both graphics to include a few geographic cues, such as the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan.
“Readers aren’t as familiar with cartogram forms as they are with geographic maps,” said McCartney. “So we wanted to make the shapes more organic and familiar, while still using boxes to display the disproportionate value that each state has.”
The landing page for Bloomberg’s elections graphics will default to cartograms, even though there’s a perception that they’re confusing. “I’m of the opinion that audiences won’t become familiar with different kinds of forms unless we put them out there,” McCartney said.
(Note: Bloomberg LP is the parent of Bloomberg News, including CityLab.)
Not all media outlets choose to map geographic information at all. Many news websites will accompany cartograms with a bar chart that has a dividing line at 270, to show who’s winning the race and eventually who has won the electoral vote. Renowned for its polling expertise, FiveThirtyEight uses a “snake diagram” to visualize how likely a state is to lean left or right in the upcoming election. The states closest to the center of the diagram are the ones that are most likely to flip and determine the result of the election.
Real talk: one of my deepest fears is that you guys are sleeping on baby snicks. CLICK ALL THE BUTTONS IN THE FORECAST! https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/2020-election-forecast/…
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After the 2000 election, the New York Times added an additional layer to its analysis of the election results by visualizing the margin by which each candidate had won a state’s electoral votes. The result is a tower-like graphic which Field replicates in his book, updating it with the 2016 results.
“Some of the things I wanted to do weren’t possible, because of a hesitation to put things on air that might not be understandable to viewers with the TV on mute, or without a lot of context,” said E.J. Fox, a journalist specializing in data visualization and graphics engineering who has built maps for NBC and CBS. “More advanced visualizations weren’t always the best.”
Yet that may be changing this year, in at least one important respect. Now a freelancer, Fox has been working with theOpen Source Election Technology Institute, a nonpartisan election technology research organization, to survey U.S. newsrooms about how they plan to calculate and communicate one of the major variables for 2020: the number of outstanding votes. With record-breaking levels of early and mail-in voting this year, vote tabulations are expected to continue in many states well after Nov. 3, creating a uniquely uncertain environment for journalists attempting to make accurate projections. Fox said he was heartened to see that Edison Research, a major provider for election exit polls, vote counts and projections, indicated plans to use a new model that estimates outstanding votes, and that some newscasters will use fresh visualizations to show the same.
That’s a break from the past, Fox said. Normally, “the goal is to tell you who won. It’s not about what we don’t know,” he said. “But that will be the most important thing in this election, especially if the president declares victory early. Knowing how many votes aren’t counted will be critically important to dealing with that situation.”
Fox has also been working on his own cartogram to display the percentage of votes tallied in every county, in every state. A simulation is shown below, with a sliding scale to adjust for a range of what’s accounted for.
Election maps aren’t all about showing the results and analyzing them. They can also be about voter empowerment, especially in disenfranchised communities.
“It’s 2020, and people are voting this year,” said Raynah Kamau, a technical advisor at Esri. She and Esri colleague Whitney Kotlewski are the co-founders ofPeople for the People, a platform that aims to be a one-stop shop for voting resources using geographic information and spatial visualization. “What we want to do is to empower the communities that typically don’t vote, because maybe they don’t have the resources to, or they don’t know who to vote for, or all the political jargon that goes around voting.”
“There are communities that are really being impacted by the decisions that are being made, and we realized that stuff has all been boiled down to our vote,” said Kotlewski, a design lead and operations program advisor at Esri. “At the end of the day, whether we think it has power or not, it does.”
Among dozens of other applications, the platform can be used to visualize which U.S. populations are kept from voting, and where, as well as how people can register. (Bloomberg News hasa similar map-based project around voter registration.) It helps answer questions such as whether and where a voter needs a photo ID, or if they can register on the day of the election, effectively centralizing information that is normally spread across multiple websites.
With the help of hundreds of volunteers, Kamau and Kotlewski also built a candidate tracker to identify who is running in House and Senate races, including information about their gender and their race. It’s telling: Only threeBIPOC women are set to run, despite diversity pledges coming from all sides of the political spectrum. Another tracker ingests congress.gov data feeds, enabling voters to see how candidates vote on key issues.
“The question we were trying to ask ourselves was, ‘How are we gonna use maps to do this?’ But we found out that maps are a pretty much universal and approachable way to show this information, and in such a relevant way,” Kamau said. “Maps have a way of telling a story that numbers on a pdf can’t.”