WYSIWYM (what you see is what you map)

I had a conversation via Twitter the other day with Connie Malamed. I had been following her elearningcoach identity on Twitter but had forgotten (or not realized) her visual communication / information design interest.

This is how things started:

(I’ve linked that image to the URL she was sharing from @justdesign.)

Connie and I chatted a bit about the design of tables because of the decision-table example on my Ensampler blog, and she shared these guidelines for designing tables.

Thanks to another link she shared, I learned about Dana Chisnell’s Civic Design site, which features a number of field guides developed to improve the quality of citizen participation through things like the design of ballots and of support materials for poll workers. (More on this in a future post.)

Chisnell’s work resonates with me; I’ve worked as an election judge (the Maryland term for a precinct worker). And I’ve sat through my county’s training program for election judges four times.

Not from a political viewpoint, but from an understanding-of-information frame of mind, I’ve been thinking about all those electoral-vote maps, especially those seen (on television or online) on election day and the day after. Perhaps I don’t get around enough, but I rarely saw a map showing a proportional view of the states–they were all geographic.

Side trip in case you don’t understand how electoral votes work but are mildly curious:

Each state’s vote in the Electoral College is equal to its total representation in Congress (Senators plus members of the House). So the smallest possible number of electoral votes is 3, which is true for the seven smallest states in terms of population, plus (thanks to the 23rd amendment) the District of Columbia. The most populous state, California, has 55 electoral votes (due to 53 House members and two Senators)–one more than the 14 smallest states and DC combined.

(I wouldn’t weep too much for those small states, who have a total of 28 Senators to California’s two.)

48 of the states award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis: if you get 50.1% of the vote in California (as inTexas, Maryland, Florida,Illinois, and so on), you get all of the state’s electoral votes.  The two exceptions are Nebraska (5 electoral votes) and Maine (4), which each award two of their votes on a statewide basis (representing the senatorial portion of the electoral vote) and the remainder on a congressional-district basis.  In 2008, John McCain won 4 of Nebraska’s 5 votes, while Barack Obama won 1.

So here, from Wikipedia, is a typical depiction of the electoral results: numbers on a geographic map:

From Wikipedia commons

This is the wide-open-spaces approach. On a geographic map, Kansas (where I lived when I was first old enough to vote) is seven times the size of Maryland (where I now live)–but Maryland has 4 more electoral votes.

In contrast, here are the results on a map where the size of each state is proportional to its number of electoral votes:

From Wikipedia commons

Regardless of my own preference for president, I think the proportional map is a better way to depict this information, which is ultimately based on population.  If more states awarded their votes by congressional district, you’d simply mark the individual squares accordingly, with two in each state for the statewide winner.

(I had seen a similar map showing the makeup of the House of Representatives–each state proportional to its size in the House, and each district marked according to party–but I didn’t bookmark it and can’t find it now. If I do find one, I’ll add it here.)