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The Most Common Lie: US Map Visuals In Election Years

Matthew Dunn

Some years ago I spent a bunch of cycles tinkering with US map visuals, trying different methods to represent population more accurately. It irked me - and still irks me - to see important measures like votes distorted and mis-represented by organizations whose job it is to convey accurate representation.  Even FiveThirtyEight.com - by far the most accurate-numbers news source I know - still has a damn red-state-blue-state GEOGRAPHY map on their home page.

Painting the Montana and Wyoming land mass red, or those of Oregon and Washington blue, is a visual distortion equivalent to giving them 2x-8x their actual number of people (or electoral votes).  Likewise, coloring in Massachusetts whatever you shade you like understates their numbers at least 2x.

I've had smart people say "Oh, but I know that Wyoming doesn't have that many people."  Bah. Baloney. One, nobody does that math in their head except Josh on the West Wing (and he's a fictional character like Wyoming's extra electors.) Two, that's a rational response - your limbic system already went into a panic over all the red (or all the blue) that's on the screen lying to you about the race.

This is just one solution - not nearly as elegant as the NY Times rectangle map described in this video, but this one is free. (Here's the Illustrator file - someone send it to CNN please.)

Thanks to Vox for a great video on the issue.  

These issues are too important for such poor communication; a journalist making the same distortions with numbers would be called on the carpet. Visuals are processed 60,000 times faster than words - people get them first & faster, and if they read at all, will likely be interpreting what they read based on what they've already concluded from the visuals.

See earlier blog post.  Pity nothing's changed.