Jonathan Rodden/Stanford Election Atlas

America needs a voting map that actually looks like America.

Add another division to America’s election-induced headaches: maps.

Of course, we’re all familiar with the quadrennial song-and-dance of the CNN-style Red States, Blue States electoral college map trotted out for pundits to read the proverbial tea leaves. But even more “sophisticated” maps, such as the one that got a four-page spread in The New York Times today, raised eyebrows out there in the cartography-enthusiast community among those know all too well the need for map literacy.

There are upshots and drawbacks to any method, whether it’s color-coded states, percent-shaded precincts, or density-contorted cartograms. Conveying over one hundred million people voting across almost four million square miles of a country requires some blunt tool to simplify the data, especially in print. Imagine if The New York Times had printed this monstrosity.

America, you don’t look so good: a color-coded cartogram of the 2012 electoral map by county and population. (Michael Gastner)

The Times later appeared to acknowledge its map-nerd critics in this lengthy interactive post. But as people tee up to argue and theorize about what the electoral map means for the country, I’m reminded of a recent point of wisdom my colleague Laura Bliss made recently—maps aren’t facts, they’re starting points.

For my money, the best place to start with your 2016 pontificating might be Jonathan Rodden’s Stanford Election Atlas of the 2008 election.

(To paraphrase Jeb Bush, please click!)

A 2008 map may seem outdated, but what it lacks in timeliness it makes up for with thoroughness. I’ll ask for a little suspension of disbelief as I make a case for using this map as a proxy for today’s Clinton-Trump race: No matter how bizarre this election seems, keep in mind how closely correlated voter support for party nominees has been from election to election.

The main benefit of this map is it gives us a spatial understanding of the politics within states and cities. There aren’t full counties or districts filled in with solid colors to make it look like deserts, mountains, and fields of soybeans are turning out in droves for their favored candidate. Instead, we see precincts that give us a good idea where people actually live—near each other in cities and towns.

On the other end of the complexity continuum, we aren’t buried in the details for millions of voters. We can still see where the prevailing opinion goes to Democrats or Republicans with a color coded dot that represents a precinct’s basic level of support for either candidate. Underneath those precincts, you can switch between area shadings of race, income, or number of potential voters.

It’s not perfect. It’s not even current. But the idea behind this map gives us a clearer way to think about what the country looks like—divided and sorted, rural and urban—rather than just splashing the landscape in the usual red and blue.

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