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When Data Visualization is Detrimental to Democracy

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

Has a chart ever annoyed you? I’m sure other “data people” will join me in having gone off more than once to a table of befuddled colleagues. (And at least once it was probably a pie chart with teeny tiny slices.) This doesn’t happen so often working with corporate social impact measurement; it’s usually in other areas. One type in particular, voting maps, worries me more than any other bad data visualization. The false impression they give negatively influences people’s beliefs and behavior. The maps used to graphically depict voting information are ubiquitous across major media outlets. My blood pressure rises once again as we inch closer to the next US general election in November. These maps showing projected voting results drawn to scale based on acreage – the amount of land. Since when has an acre ever cast a vote?

Geographic Maps Are Not the Best Representation of Population Data

The purpose of visualizing data is to allow people to more quickly interpret results. Geographic voting maps cause a deeply flawed interpretation to happen immediately in people’s brains. Reporting on this weekend’s temperatures? Geographic maps make sense. Reporting on changes in zoning codes? Geographic maps make sense. Reporting on the path of a hurricane? You see where I’m going here.

There is a clear alternative. It is rarely used when it comes to election projections or results. The most natural representation of human behavior data is icons representing humans. A quick search in my canva account showed some examples:

It’s easy to explain why geographic maps are so commonly used for voting data. The electoral college is still hobbling along and therefore federal elections are cast by states. Elections are managed by Boards of Elections which have state, county, and municipal jurisdictions. Politicians represent districts which are drawn on maps. Maps have also been used forever, so they feel familiar and easy to interpret. Even with all that, once you think about it, it becomes clear how candidates’ quantity of votes expanded or shrunk to fit the amount of land where those people live gives us the wrong interpretation.

Personal Angle: My Hometown in Wisconsin

Perhaps one of the reasons this data visualization bothers me so much is because of where I’m from: Eau Claire, WI. After any election, the image of Wisconsin election results covers the state in a red robe with a few blue polka dots (scroll to see an example below). Wisconsin’s cheese-loving reputation comes from a long history as a strong agricultural state – and indeed, the state is full of lovely rural communities. Eau Claire, population 70,000, is one of those blue dots which is not rural. Home to a vibrant local arts scene driven by its University, birthplace of Bon Iver (went to high school with him), where students at UWEC introduce themselves in classes using their pronouns, and a long history of voting blue. Wisconsin is also home to Madison and Milwaukee, both of which are major urban cities in the Midwest.

The blue polka dots on the map are home to the majority of the state’s population. Not minor. Not fringe. Wisconsinites through and through. The Wisconsin progressive party developed in the early 1900s and led the way with “Fighting Bob” LaFollette who worked against political corruption and corporate power in government. In my observation, Wisconsin culture favors conformity. On the positive side, that builds community through shared goals and interests. On the negative side, that reinforces group-think or depedent decision-making. Cultures of conformity would ostensibly be more affected by the false impression created by the geographic map of voting data.

Visualization Matters Because It Quickly Sticks In Our Minds

Brain researchers show how quickly we process and recall visual information; almost 10 years ago MIT researchers proved only viewing an image for 13 milliseconds (previously 100 milliseconds) was enough to recall the image. In particular, people can recall colors, especially important for the point I'm making about voting maps. The negative effect of our ubiquitous voting visual is impossible to quantify. After all that I’ve laid out here, it would be hard to win the argument that a geographically-drawn map is better than a map right-sized for the voting population. So why does the geographic map persist?

A Better Option is Clear, But It Has No Clear Leader to Take Action

The answer is the same as why so many other bad things persist. Inertia and no owner of the issue. Finding the right person to convince at every channel, media outlet, website, or newspaper, sounds daunting beyond any hope of achievability. We know consolidation of big media over the years has reduced independent outlets. That means the only meaningful change must happen with the biggest players. Would someone in Social Impact at Warner Bros. take this up with the staff at CNN? Would someone on the S in ESG team at Comcast take time to find the right decision-maker within CNBC to use a different map? Herein lies one failing of materiality and strategic social impact at companies. This extremely detrimental visualization is not high enough on anyone or any company’s priority list.

Examples of the Better Option Exist But Are Not Common

There are a few election results examples used by NPR which adjust state size by population. Here’s one projecting potential results in 2016.

Politico offers an option to change their maps to “size of victory.” It defaults to the geographic version of the map. Given that the size of victory is a more accurate reflection of each state’s voters' behavior, why not default to that?

What's your opinion on this?

Do you know a team of budding designers who could create each state’s voting population-scaled visual where a reporter could still “tap” on a county to change its color during 24/7 coverage on election day?

Do you happen to know the CEO of Comcast?

Let me know! Changing to a population-sized map depicting voters is a good idea without a clear owner to bring it to life.


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