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Question #91390 posted on 05/30/2018 6:54 p.m.
Q:

Dear Yayfulness,

-My Map Here

A:

Dear MyMap,

I know this question was directed at yayfulness, but the world can always use more excellent maps. I especially love this one from Brandon Sanderson's Oathbringer (painted by Isaac Stewart, who is awesome):

Click to view the source full-sized.

I thought it was really cool that they put actual lines of latitude and longitude on the map, so being the map nerd that I am, I set out to digitize it and play with different map projections. Here's the map that I made based on the original:

Click to view the source full-sized.

-Inverse Insomniac

A:

Dear maps,

This is a good question! I thought it would be difficult, but after a few minutes I realized that there's really only one possible winner:

Because the Electoral College is horrible complicated, creating maps that show results that both look accurate and are accurate is really difficult. For instance, let's start with the election map you probably saw in 2016:

(source)

That's a ton of red, right? And Trump did win. But the ratio of red to blue on the map is not the same as the ratio of Trump electoral votes to Clinton electoral votes, and it has no relationship to raw Trump votes to raw Clinton votes. Plus, it shows no difference between Nevada, a very narrow Clinton win, and California, an overwhelming Clinton win. It does a great job of showing who won, but it doesn't say much about how the country voted.

What if you add numbers to the map to show the number of electoral votes per state, and change the shading to show which states had close elections and which states had landslides?

That's better, but it's still not intuitive. In order to really understand vote distribution, you have to treat it as a chart, and the United States is a really unwieldy shape for a chart.

So maybe more granular data will help? It's a good theory. But if you look at county level data, you get this:

I've seen this map a lot in right-leaning propaganda, for obvious reasons. It makes it look like we live in an overwhelmingly pro-Trump country. But really, this isn't a map of how the people of the United States voted. It's a map of how the land in the United States voted. About 80% of the population of the United States lives in cities, but well over 80% of the land in the United States is rural. With the well-publicized urban-rural divide between liberals and conservatives, any map based on land area will be misleading.

So what if, rather than shaping the votes to fit the map, we shape the map to fit the votes?

No.

That's better. States are sized by the number of electoral votes, but they still keep their original shapes and arrangement. But once again, everything is either a single shade of red or a single shade of blue. How do you show the popular vote in a meaningful way?

Here's one possibility:

The graphs really help, but they're also very cluttered. For understanding data, this is probably the best election map. But as an elegant piece of cartography, it's really lacking.

And that brings us back to the original map.

As a tool for understanding the distribution of the popular vote, this map is nearly perfect. First, and least politically, it accurately shows where most people in the United States live. Even as someone who's studied geography and cities for years, I never really appreciated just how much the US population is clustered around a few urban areas. Second, it shows how the electoral vote masks intra-state variations in partisan voting. California is seen as a deep blue state, but there are about as many Republican voters in California than there are voters of any party in Montana, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and both Dakotas combined. There's been talk across the Twittersphere, usually in jest but sometimes serious, about breaking the United States up into two countries, one made up of "blue states" and the other made up of "red states." That sort of talk, backed up by election maps, assumes that states are relatively homogeneous blocks. This map shows, in one way, how terrible that idea would be. There are clusters of both Republican and Democratic voters in every place where people are clustered together. Like it or not, we're all stuck with each other. Third, this map shows on an intuitive level just how close the popular vote really was. And finally, by using stick figures, it humanizes the vote and reminds us that these are all people.

As a tool for understanding how the popular vote relates to the electoral vote, it's not very helpful. I suppose it could add colored borders to the states showing which party won the state's electoral votes, but that once again raises the issue of measuring the vote by land area rather than by number of votes. I'm not sure if there's a good way to bridge that gap. I suppose you could combine the last two maps from Wikipedia - keep the style of the last map, but resize the states proportional to the number of electoral votes - but both of those maps are already cluttered enough as it is. Putting them together would be asking far too much of a single map.

So there you have it. Picking a favorite map is hard, partly because every map has to strike an imperfect balance between readability and accuracy, and partly because there are just so dang many good maps out there. But if I had to settle on just one, this would be it.

-yayfulness