Like most residents of the United States, every 4 years the media I consume becomes saturated with election maps. So. Many. Maps. Some of them pretty great! Most of them…fairly mediocre. Many of them, outright bad. And by “bad” I mean they fail spectacularly at their purpose. Or worse – their purpose is to mislead and misinform people, and they accomplish that effectively.
A map is a visual communication tool. Maps shape how we view our spaces and the things we are exploring in that space. Things like election results. The problem is….a lot of these maps are distorted in ways that make them total failures at communicating the one thing they are supposed to communicate!
Let’s look at an example that uses the 2016 election map. In response to the preparations to impeach President Trump in September of 2019, Lara Trump posted the standard 2016 presidential election map (by county) with the words “impeach this.” This map is often used to suggest that most of the United States actually votes for the Republican Candidate (the red counties) and that seems to be Ms. Trump’s intent here.
In October Karim Douieb, a data scientist in Belgium and co-founder of the Data Visualization company Jetpack, responded with a very effective GIF that visualizes the problem with the original election map (and others like it):
His gif started the rounds on social media again in 2020, but this time with a very effective tagline: “Land doesn’t vote; people do”.
And that, truly sums up what is wrong with the original map. By coloring the entire county we see land area instead of the actual population that is doing the voting. And some of the blue counties have very small land areas, but a lot of actual voters!
Take a look at a map that uses a 3-D perspective to better illustrate the number of voters instead of the amount of land – here the height of the county shapes is scaled to the number of votes in that county: