An amateur cartographer at Washington State University took on the huge task of gathering precinct voting data.
If you’ve been following CityLab since November 8, you’ve seen a lot of U.S. presidential election maps. But this new one is a little different. It came to our attention via Twitter exchange between economist Jed Kolko and our own Richard Florida.
Yes, it is very red, we don’t need to remind you. But zoom in a bit closer and you’ll find that there’s a lot more to love about this Decision Desk HQ production from scrappy amateur cartographer Ryne Rhola: It’s a precinct map, a gloriously granular glimpse into our divided nation’s voting proclivities, at the nearly neighborhood level.
Rhola, a fourth year Ph.D. student in Economics at Washington State University, has been building maps since before he was out of high school. He started building election maps in 2008, using MS Paint, of all things.
On the eve of the 2012 election, Stanford’s Spatial Social Science Lab had published a precinct-level map for 2008; Rhola had considered making a 2012 map but abandoned the idea given the enormity of the task.
Once 2016 rolled around, Rhola decided to go for it. He started compiling precinct data as soon as the election was over. But gathering those returns at the precinct level is not nearly as easy as the county level data we are accustomed to hearing about. Rhola sometimes had to track down precinct vote counts by calling county clerks and secretaries of state.
“I tried to do everything I could online,” Rhola tells CityLab. “But there are a lot of places that didn’t have the ability to do that. Maybe they didn’t have an office scanner or an email address available. I would call them up and ask for the information.”
Rhola’s map-making adventure also required him to negotiate state-by-state election laws—for example, he had to file Freedom of Information Act requests to get results in New York and New Jersey. But he also talked with passionate people along the way. “One guy who was really interested in my research was a county clerk in Missouri—he wanted to know all it,” he says. “But most of the time, it was a quick email or fax or mail. In a few cases I had to pay a fair amount of money to get them.”
Once that was done, he just had to map out the precincts. Easier said than done.
“States don’t publish a complete precinct file very often,” Rhola says. “I could try to update from current state files, but sometimes I had get an actual physical copy of the precinct map. I even had to go in person to get some of this information.”
Rhola also used 2012 voting data to better show the vote swings at the precinct level. The map below shows the change in percentage for different districts, with red and pink indicating a percentage shift towards Trump and light blue and dark blue indicating a shift towards Clinton. The story it tells is clear: “This is the most urbanized election that we've had,” Rhola says. “The inner suburbs swung towards Clinton, and the outer suburbs behaved more like rural areas. You can really tell the outlying of cities now based on the vote.”
Getting a map like this to the public, Rhola thinks, could help people understand the country better. “It makes things seem a bit less dichotomous,” he says. “You can understand that there are more places near you that think differently than you see from a state or county map.”
The map also reveals heretofore hidden details, such as clusters of third-party voters. “In Utah, [Evan] McMullin pulled off a majority in a precinct or two,” Rhola says. “Mostly around colleges. There were also a few places where Gary Johnson or Jill Stein might be in the majority.”
Unfortunately, you may have to wait patiently to dive fully into the details. At the time of this writing, the server for the map had crashed, likely from the outpouring of interest from map-happy urbanists. Maybe pony up a donation or two and get the guy some server space!
Looks like we managed to crash MangoMap. Good job guys.— Ryne Rohla (@rarohla) March 30, 201
If you can’t get in there to interact with the map yet, we’ll leave you with a few details of how various urban regions voted.