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This morning (in Sweden) I woke up early to watch the 2012 presidential election in United States. I watched different news sources but all of them presented a geographical map of the results instead of cartogram results, giving the impression that Republican candidate had won the election by a landslide since more than half of the United States of America was painted red (image below taken from the 2008 election, as an example):

Geographic map of the 2008 election

As it turns out that is not the case. States that are smaller by area, but larger by population (and therefore electoral votes) have a greater impact of the result than what is visible on a geographical map.

There are alternatives, such as a demographic map or cartogram which display the area equal to importance. This gives a more correct visualization of the actual result than a geographic map:

cartogram map of the 2008 election

Still, what’s displayed on the news worldwide today is the geographic map. It may be that what we are seeing is an established convention, but the visualization fails and you need to explain to your consumers how to read the map. I think it would be more obvious to the consumer if a cartogram map were used.

So why are election results presented on a geographic map instead of a cartogram map?


Images from the article Transforming the Electoral Map: Beyond Red and Blue

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It should not be weighted by population — it should be weighted by number of electors. Surprisingly, the two are not proportional. –  gerrit Nov 7 '12 at 14:14
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@BennySkogberg the elector count is based on number of congressmen. Every state has exactly two senators, as the Senate is not based on population; the remainder of the electors is proportional to population, which is how the House of Representatives is allocated. So smaller states have proportionally more electors per person, but not by very much. –  Michael Edenfield Nov 7 '12 at 14:39
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@BennySkogberg when the US Constitution was written the states were much closer to being independent countries than political subdivisions of a single entity. The system was designed to balance the desire of smaller states that each would have equal rank (as in the articles of confederation - the predecessor of the current constitution) to prevent a few of the largest states from being able to run everything to their benefit and that of the large states to have influence proportional to their population. –  Dan Neely Nov 7 '12 at 14:46
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@BenBrocka In theory, all we need to know is Ohio's vote ;) –  Izkata Nov 7 '12 at 15:11
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I think it would make more sense if you plotted colored dots for each electoral vote. Rhode Island would still be filled in, but 3 red dots in Montana would look suitably sparse. –  Jimmy Nov 7 '12 at 23:34
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6 Answers

up vote 75 down vote accepted

People who turn on the TV on election night expect to see the map of their country and see which states voted which way. Those who actually follow the elections and have at least some very basic knowledge of what's going on, also know which are the important states to watch, and they can find them easily on the geographic map. Even those who aren't that involved are very familiar with the geographic outline of the US.

If a TV channel displayed the bottom map, people tuning in would be completely stumped as to why there's no map of the US, and instead there's a cartoon of a blue Batman flying to the left, wearing a red apron and sporting a huge erection.

No unprepared layman can understand the bottom map. Most viewers wouldn't even recognize it as a map of the US. These kind of tools are great for analysts or at least for people who know the logic behind the skewed display and can interpret it easily. But if you take the general population, a large percent of them wouldn't know that non-geographical maps even exist. Even if you provided a constant on-screen explanation (which would be extremely annoying and not really helpful in any case, as this is not something that can be explained in a brief footnote), by the time it would take for viewers them to find and read it, they would be long gone to a channel that does appear to know what the US looks like :).

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Batman, capes, etc - ok - so I see it now that you say it, but man - you are...I dunno...that's special that is :-) –  Roger Attrill Nov 7 '12 at 10:19
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+1 for "cartoon of a blue Batman flying to the left, wearing a red apron and sporting a huge erection". Seriously - I think you're right, but it would be nice if the media would at least try to educate viewers and show the results in a more visual correct way. –  Benny Skogberg Nov 7 '12 at 10:23
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Roger, ok, then it's best that I don't tell you what I see in the regular map :) –  Vitaly Mijiritsky Nov 7 '12 at 10:25
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OMG! I see it now! Kinda looks like he's spitting and wincing from a POW! or a WHAM! –  hydroparadise Nov 7 '12 at 18:32
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Animation (morphing from the geographic map to the cartogram) along with a narrative voice over could explain it to the average viewer. –  Kaz Nov 7 '12 at 19:44
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Interesting graphic - the US looks quite funny. But I think a geographic representation is still best way because of:

  • The viewer is interested in what state has elected and which party. This is best shown in a geographical correct map as you are used to know where a state is situated.

  • It is obvious, that the USA is shown. No need for explaining a strange shape, that could be the US.

  • At a glance you see, that midwest of US is Republicans base and the coastal areas voted for the Democrats.

  • The lower map is quite interesting, but I assume just a minor percentage of viewers will identify its meaning. Its too experimental to be common-sense. May be one could put the amount of presidential electors inside a state to show its importance.

  • Numbers - how many presidential electors per state - are won for whom are best shown as numbers, because the pure number 272 matters. Or a pie chart, which is good for indicating more than a half.

edit: I found this one with numbers in the states.

enter image description here

Source: telepolis

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+1 for the numbers map. It makes is a bit easier for the eye than just red/blue coloring. –  Benny Skogberg Nov 7 '12 at 10:27
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Note the difference desaturated colors can make; this map is much more pleasant to look at (not just because of the numbers) than the ultra-saturated maps in the question –  Ben Brocka Nov 7 '12 at 19:08
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The point is that the map is intended as an at-a-glance throwaway space filler that does it's job simply and efficiently and for all viewers.

Of course, that's not to say there's no place for maps with more information, but there's no point in doing that unless you can provide a way for the user to interact with the map in a meaningful manner that allows them to easily take away information according to their interests.

So we get interactive maps like we see from Guardian data blog, NY Times and they have much more exploratory intent than the simple graphic.

There is a place for both, but I don't think there's a need to mess with the recognisable constants like country and state border shapes in order to try and artificially force the quick graphic into being an informative interactive graphic. It's not the correct way to go about it and you end up confusing (and therefore failing) rather than actually being informative.

Case in point: - here's the Guardian map of the same information - no throwaway map - this one is fully interactive - there's a small version on the home page today and there's a full version linked from it.

enter image description here

enter image description here

Then as Benny points out - you can drill down into your state of interest and really explore the local data as well as having the graphical representation of both local Rep/Dem split and size of lead indicated by height of county. Brilliant!

enter image description here

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+1. It get's even better if you select a state and you see a 3D diagram where height represent population. That's really nice and gets to be informative. –  Benny Skogberg Nov 7 '12 at 11:40
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For reference, I added a snapshot of that to my answer. –  Roger Attrill Nov 7 '12 at 12:08
    
@Benny: Size of lead, not population. Otherwise, Harris County (Houston) is way too short. –  dan04 Nov 10 '12 at 4:06
    
@dan04 Yeah, I saw that later when Roger posted the image. Looks strange though since "size of lead" isn't as informative as population imho. Still a better representation than just a plain map! –  Benny Skogberg Nov 14 '12 at 7:33
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The best map I have seen is by Chris Howard. It combines population density and partisan lean using color:

Coloring the 2012 Electoral Map by County, Population Density, and Partisan Split

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+1 This is really really nice. Good visualization there! Thank you for the link! –  Benny Skogberg Nov 15 '12 at 19:38
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There is a half way house between the plain geographic map that lead's republicans to think they won (or should have won) because more of the map is red and the continuous cartogram featured in the question. This is the discontinuous cartogram where the sizes of the states is modified to represent the population (or number of electoral college votes, etc).

In this image the colours represent the unemployment rate while the size of the states represents the number of people in the state (year 2000 stats for any one who is really interested). I have an interactive version here.

2000 Unemployment rate

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This is an interesting combination between geographic and informational, however it tends to lose it's impact for the smaller states where you get virtually no indication of the data because it takes up such a small amount of pixels. –  JonW Nov 8 '12 at 14:04
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That's because no one really cares about what N Dakota thinks :-) –  iant Nov 8 '12 at 14:06
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Simply, the cartogram map would require more cognition than a geographic map.

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Can you provide a bit more detail here? Why would it require more cognition? Is that necessarily a bad thing? If it contains more information than a geographic one then isn't it therefore more useful than a geographic map? –  JonW Nov 13 '12 at 22:16
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