We are all used to seeing election results in a colour-blocked map, that shows states in the colour of the party that won the election there. In the recent US elections, we have watched as states turned blue or red, or swung in-between.

This 2009 study showed that not only was this method of data visualisation inaccurate, it was also polarising.

Coloured maps depicting electoral results may exacerbate perceptions of polarisation, rather than merely reflecting them

Effects of Electoral College Depictions on Political Group Perception
The US election map with a ‘red wave’ shown widely in 2016

Data Drawbacks

There are two main reasons that this method does not accurately reflect the data:

  1. It does not take into account the populations of each state. Take the 2016 map in Exhibit A, which has significantly more red than blue, which would seem accurate given that Donald Trump, the Republican Candidate, beat Hilary Clinton, the Democrat nominee. However, in no way does it reflect the fact that Clinton won slightly more votes than Trump. In reality, the population of the red states is on average significantly lower than that of the blue ones, showing that in absolute terms, more Americans voted for Clinton.
  2. More importantly, the entire population of a state does not vote for one party – so the very basis for colouring it red or blue is flawed. Even if a nominee won by just one vote, the state would be shown in that colour, ignoring the millions of voters who may have voted for the opposing candidate.

A More Inclusive Tone

The authors of the 2009 study Effects of Electoral College Depictions on Political Group Perception, proposed that electoral maps be shown in proportional shades of purple. States that voted more Democratic were bluer shades of purple, and states that voted more Republican were redder shades of purple, depending on the percentages of the total vote. This was a more accurate depiction than the winner-takes-all red and blue.

Greg Albers has taken this forward with PurpleMapsofAmerica.org. Albers has collected state-by-state data from the last forty years of U.S. presidential elections and shown electoral maps proportionately coloured in shades of purple.

“It was baffling and sickening that the contest was as close as it was. Still, I was compelled to look for solace, answers, hope anywhere. The purple map helped me. Helped me to remember that just because a state is red, doesn’t mean it’s fully that way.”

Greg Albers, creator, PurpleMapsofAmerica.org
A purple map showing the results of 2020

Given the many lines that we are divided along today, the last thing we need is for faulty design to polarise us further. Initiatives like PurpleMapsofAmerica.org remind us that things are. not always black and white, or in this case, red and blue.

Images used from PurpleMapsofAmerica.org under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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