Election Maps Can Be Misleading—Here's a Solution

There are better ways to map voting results. So why do we stick with the same old red and blue?

It’s hard to look at the news this year without seeing a red and blue map of the United States. These maps are a national obsession, and they have a long history, but they’re also deeply flawed.

You can see why in the map below, which shows the results from the 2012 election. The vast sea of red in the middle of the country might lead you to believe Mitt Romney won. But land masses don’t decide elections, the electoral college does. Montana may be big, but it has fewer electoral votes than tiny Rhode Island.

This traditional map of the 2012 election makes no adjustments for electoral college votes.
Cartographers have been experimenting with ways to better illustrate election results and polling data. One representation that seems to be getting traction this election is the cartogram, which distorts the shapes of the states so their size corresponds to the number of electoral votes they have. In the cartogram version of the 2012 election map below, you can see more clearly how coastal states and states in the upper Midwest carried the election for Obama.

This map shows the same results as the one above, but with adjustments for electoral college votes. Barack Obama won the states in blue, and the election.
The advantages of the cartogram have led some media outlets to include them in their coverage of this year’s election. Both the Washington Post and FiveThirtyEight developed cartograms this year to represent presidential polling data.

Cartograms have drawbacks, though. They mess with geography and make the states look strangely bloated, blocky, or pixelated, depending on the method used. Some people think they’re downright ugly. And for most people they’re not as familiar and intuitive to read as an old-fashioned map. At least not yet.

That’s why the Post lets readers toggle between the cartogram and a traditional map, says deputy graphics editor Chiqui Esteban. Despite their advantages, cartograms probably won’t be a fixture of mainstream media coverage on the eve of the election this year, Esteban says: “Election night is such a big deal, you don’t want to break so much from tradition.”

In cartography, as in politics, change can be slow to come.

For more on the history of election maps, check out this post.

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