2020 Proves We Need Better Election Results Maps

The 2020 election shows we need better election results maps as the typical red and blue maps used by TV stations do not account for electoral votes or absentee ballots


Waiting on the edge of our seats for final election results as key states continue to count absentee ballots has prompted a critical look at the maps typically used to report on elections. With votes continuing to come in, the typical red and blue map seems more inaccurate than ever.  We discuss why and explore alternatives below for future reporting.

History Of Visualizing Election Results

Choropleth Map: 2016 Election Results
A typical choropleth map based on 2016 election results suggests that Republicans (red) dominated; however, party results were nearly equal

According to Bloomberg CityLab’s MapLab: The Rise of Micropolitics the tradition of visualizing elections hails back to the nineteenth century when Henry Gannett, the census superintendent, drew a map which revealed nuanced political geographies.

Over the past few years, maps have been a hallmark of competing newsrooms trying to lure viewer attention in reporting election results.

Red and Blue Choropleth Maps

Choropleth maps use color, shading or patterns to illustrate quantitative differences. It is the type of map Henry Gannet initially created for the 1880 presidential election and the type that we are most familiar with. 

While choropleth maps are used to visualize how states and counties vote, they do not visually represent the actual electoral system. After all, people, not land vote.  

Some of the largest states have the least number of electoral votes. This includes Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, each with 3 electoral college votes. The red and blue shaded choropeth map graphic makes these states look significant due to their land size. In reality, they are much less significant than a state like New Jersey. Though it is one of the top ten smallest states in America, New Jersey has 14 electoral votes -- nearly 5x more than such large western states.

In addition to potentially misleading viewers on election results by not taking into account the electoral college, red and blue maps do not effectively account for the continual tallying of votes due to absentee ballots  -- a new situation due to the pandemic this year. USA Today and Bloomberg both explore this further, questioning mapping results after election day in articles including “Some Magic Maps Sport Too Much Red and Blue in a Too-Close-To-Call Presidential race” and “Complete Guide To Misleading Election Maps.”

Cartograms To Depict Election Results

Cartograms are a popular alternative to choropleth maps to illustrate election results. It substitutes a mapping variable for land area or distance. In the example graphic from Bloomberg News (left) electoral college votes are used.  Alternatively, the black, grey and white simulation cartogram from Fox News depicts the percentage of votes counted in each state.

Election cartograms: Bloomberg & Fox News
Cartogram examples: 1) Bloomberg News waiting to be filled in with election results (left) 2) Simulation cartogram by Fox News depicting % of votes counted in each state

Other Graphics

Graphic depicting which states will lean left or right
Election graphic by FiveThirtyEight illustrating how likely a state will go left or right

The snake used by FiveThirtyEight, a site known for its polling expertise, is probably one of the most unique. The snake demonstrates how likely a state is to lean left or right in the election. Towers, also have been used in election result depictions. 

For additional election-related maps such as that pertaining to voter registration and deadlines check out Toolkit from #PeopleForThePeople.

Also, keep crossing your fingers….

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