Will Knight

A View from Will Knight

Data Visualization Reveals a Less Divided States of America

Forget red or blue states. Here’s a better picture of election night.

  • November 14, 2012

The maps you saw on election night probably just showed a United States filled with either blue or red states, for Democrat or Republican.

The electoral map is of course far more complicated, and interesting; and the visualization above shows a more creative way to view voter data.

The visualization was built by Robert J. Vanderbei, a mathematician at Princeton, using publically available election data. It shows the proportion of people who voted Democrat or Republican for each county as a gradient between blue and red; and the number of voters in each county is shown by the height of the horizontal bars. You can explore the visualization in more detail by viewing the full 3-D WebGL file on Vanderbei’s site (warning: 55MB!).

Mark Newman, from the Department of Physics and the Center for the Study of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan, has visualized the population differences across voting maps in a slightly different way: by distorting the size of each county to reflect its population—creating a kind of map known as a cartogram.

Both visualizations provide a more nuanced picture of election night. And they show that the country isn’t quite as divided, along state lines, as some other maps suggest.

Vanderbei says he was inspired to start building voting visualizations in 2000, after seeing maps showing counties across the U.S. as simply blue or red. “I live in a county that’s 48 percent-52 percent,” he says. “I might like to know if it’s 48 percent Democratic or Republican. Or maybe not. We’re all basically a little bit purple.”

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