Maps are incredibly helpful tools, not just for getting from one place to another, but for understanding data. We’ve all seen maps of the United States being used to show statistical data that was collected across the country, usually by state, and we know that they make the numbers easier to understand. That’s the idea, at least.

us map
Photo (cc) by Geralt via Pixabay

Vox, the news organization that has tasked itself with “explaining the news,” published a video back in May that shows why using a geographically accurate map to illustrate election data can be misleading.

Essentially, the problem is that using an accurate map of the United States when presenting election data assumes that the data from each state is most useful in terms of where the states are rather than how much influence each state has overall. This doesn’t make much sense.

Basically, this means that using an actual map of the U.S. shows that Texas is a red state and that Texas is a bigger state than California, a blue state, but only by square mileage. It doesn’t show how much influence Texas has in a national election relative to California. And in fact, California has more electoral votes than Texas.

Of course, the benefit to using a map of the U.S. is being able to easily find where the states are and being able to see the layout of voting demographics across the country. An alternative to the traditional map is the cartogram.

Cartograms are maps that disregard the geographical borders of states and distort the size of the states to more accurately represent the influence that each state has in the electoral college. Some cartograms use hexagons to show the number of electoral votes per state, some use squares, and some use circles. There are countless ways of arranging the data while still maintaining the geographical arrangement of the country.

Election results displayed in traditional maps are difficult to understand because the winner may have actually won fewer states. Using cartograms is a more useful way of displaying election data because it sizes the states relative to their number of electoral votes.  More information is being conveyed by the graphic.

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