National Geographic: There’s More Than One Way to Map an Election

1880, 2012, Electoral College, History

National Geographic has great article about the history of electoral maps. Highlights include the earliest known US electoral map from 1880 and some examples of different approaches to representing population.

Our greatest national map obsession comes every four years. In the weeks leading up to a presidential election, practically every major media outlet creates maps to show the latest polling data. Then, on Election Day, millions of Americans turn on the TV and watch with anticipation (or dread) as maps of the country turn red and blue, one state at a time, in a wave that sweeps from east to west as the vote is tallied.

But despite their persistent presence in news reports, these red-state, blue-state maps are cartographically questionable.

More populous areas are more brightly colored on this map of the 2008 presidential election.  MAP COURTESY ANDY WOODRUFF, AXIS MAPS
More populous areas are more brightly colored on this map of the 2008 presidential election.
MAP COURTESY ANDY WOODRUFF, AXIS MAPS
On this map of the 2012 presidential election, each dot represents 1,000 votes.  MAP COURTESY KEN FIELD, ESRI
On this map of the 2012 presidential election, each dot represents 1,000 votes.
MAP COURTESY KEN FIELD, ESRI

The History of Election Maps
Election maps go back more than a century. The work above is the oldest known map of a U.S. presidential election, according to Susan Schulten, a historian of cartography at the University of Denver. Schulten has written extensively about this map, which appeared in a statistical atlas published by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1883. It’s a superb early example of data visualization, Schulten says.

The map depicts results from the 1880 election at the state and county levels, and accompanying bar charts show which states had the biggest turnout and largest margins for one side or the other. The overall color pattern on the map may look familiar but it’s actually the opposite of what’s used today—Democratic areas are red, Republican areas are blue.

This map showing electoral results from the 1880 presidential election may have been the first of its kind.  MAP COURTESY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
This map showing electoral results from the 1880 presidential election may have been the first of its kind.
MAP COURTESY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
This map of Paris shows voting results from the 1869 parliamentary election that eroded the power of Napoleon III (votes for his party are shown in yellow).  MAP BY LEON MONTIGNY
This map of Paris shows voting results from the 1869 parliamentary election that eroded the power of Napoleon III (votes for his party are shown in yellow).
MAP BY LEON MONTIGNY