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Political voting maps are useless

As the New York Times and L.A. Times spat about maps, the truth is red and blue maps only fuel ratings–they don’t promote understanding.

Political voting maps are useless
[Source Image: Milkos/iStock]

This week, the New York Times ran a data visualization that is drawing criticism. Titled “An Extremely Detailed Map of the 2016 Election,” it’s a map of the United States, with every county painted Republican red or Democrat blue.

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As you might expect, the map looks like chicken pox have eaten a Smurf. As with most maps we see of voting patterns, it takes landmasses into account, not the populations inside of them. As a result, the visual is intensely red with the slightest hints of blue–liberal shock bait that makes it look like democratic ideals are all but run out of America. In reality, land doesn’t vote, and counties don’t determine elections, whatsoever. People in states do. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million people–those people were just distributed across the wrong state buckets.

See the interactive graphic in question here. [Image: The New York Times]

LA Times reporter and mapmaker John Schleuss hopped on to Twitter to offer frank and unedited criticism of the Times’s work. He said the NYT “lied by not factoring in [population] density.” The he showed a series of side-by-sides demonstrating his point. The LA Times created the exact same red and blue county-by-county voting for California in 2016, but by fading counties with low populations out of the picture, you see a somewhat murky but vastly different story–a California that’s a sure win for Democrats every year, rather than a red state as large as Texas.

It’s not the first time someone has pointed out the futility of the time-honored red and blue election map. My favorite instance requires deep, unlicensed YouTubing back to the year 2000. When Florida’s hanging chads left the world in wait only for the Supreme Court to hand Bush the election, Wanda Sykes posed as a political correspondent on The Chris Rock Show, and roasted our dependence on near-useless commentating in front of red and blue maps.

Sykes: Now Chis, what you see here, the red is what Bush won. The blue is what Gore won.

Rock: There’s a lot of red there! Looks like Bush won a lot of votes!

Sykes: It looks that way. But guess what? Don’t nobody live there! You see this state Chris? (Gestures to New York). Twenty million people! You see this shit here? (gesturing to Wyoming) That’s a guy named Ned. The rest of this shit is just rocks and cows.

Almost 20 years later, though, this very obvious problem, of measuring votes by landmass and not by human beings, continues to be standard practice across many print and broadcast publications. And with all respect to Schleuss’s criticism, I’d argue that the moment we paint votes on a map at all, we’re blurring the real story. Why? States make for lousy data visualizations because their volume is not a one-to-one representation of the electoral votes they each account for. Popular votes inside a state determine the electoral votes of that state. And it’s winner takes all by state.

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Bottom line: There is no decent way to solve the election map without distorting the map so much, it ceases to be recognizable as the map we know. In which case, why bother using a map at all?

Two years ago, America was blindsided by Trump’s win, in part because of lousy data visualizations. And while I’m thrilled to see Schleuss reigniting the data visualization debate, I worry that this is one folly that history is destined to repeat.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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