Someone recently, earnestly, told me that Oregon and Washington legislative lines must be gerrymandered “because Democrats win more elections, but both states are actually red.” When I asked what they meant by that, they said, “Just look at the maps!”

Map of Oregon with lots of "red" land, but fewer people

Map of Washington where there is more "red" land, but has fewer peopleLoren Culp, who ran for governor against incumbent Jay Inslee in Washington in 2020, used the same logic when he showed maps of counties in Washington as proof that the election results were wrong.

Maps can be powerful and important visuals for helping people quickly understand complex geography-based information—hence their prevalence in election-night newscasts. But they can also distort viewers’ understanding of election outcomes, because first and foremost, they show acres, not the number of people living on those acres. And in an election? It’s the people that should matter.

The numbers are clear: in 2020, 57.97 percent of Washington voters chose Joe Biden, and only 38.77 percent chose Donald Trump. Similarly, one state south, 56.45 percent of Oregon voters chose Joe Biden in 2020 compared to just 40.37 percent for Donald Trump.

But maps that color entire counties red or blue can dupe viewers: they make both states look majority red. And they make counties look like monoliths in a way that is unhelpful to Americans interested in bridging current political divides. If you didn’t understand how voting works, you would think the maps above show that Trump won handily in the Pacific Northwest. You might also think there are no conservatives in urban areas and almost no progressives in the rural region east of the Cascades.

It seems that the state winner-take-all electoral college process for choosing the US president has infected the way we think about voters within a state, too. When electing the president, we do this weird thing where we don’t count up all the people’s votes; we count each state’s electoral votes. The visuals we then see out of this count are maps where each state is solidly blue or solidly red, painting over the reality that there are plenty of voters of both and other persuasions throughout all states. Such maps also distort the reality that some states have a lot of people, while other states have a lot of land. The maps show the land, not the people, thus tricking our minds into thinking that acres vote. (Thankfully, some outlets are starting to use more accurate maps, like these.)

In every other US election—state governors, city mayors, Congressional and state legislature representatives—we do the sensible thing and count up all the people’s votes to determine those races’ winners. Yet some have taken the distorted visuals from the electoral college and applied them at the county level, where it makes no sense at all because counties have no role in determining presidential or state-level elections.

Oregon has one very concentrated metropolitan area and large swaths of less populated land. Displaying county lands, rather than Oregon voters, creates a disingenuous visual. In the maps above, counties are colored red or blue based on which presidential candidate won more votes there in 2020. But this view fails to represent how many voters are in each county, which is what really matters in a democracy.

This is a problem when nearly half of Oregon voters live in just three counties on a sliver of the state’s total land. Nine counties in the eastern and southern part of the state make up about half the land but are home to less than one-tenth of the people. A similar pattern holds in Washington. Just three of the Evergreen State’s thirty-nine counties are home to more than half the people.

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  • Maps showing election results by colored county suggest to the viewer that voters are equal to acreage. But, especially in the West, that is a dangerously false thing to suggest. Acres are acres. Voters vote.

    Our maps don’t have to keep lying to us. Here are some better options for showing election results that still capture the geographic spread of Oregon and Washington but more accurately depict the voting humans who live there.

    Squares depict voters, with county lines in the background 

    In addition to hiding people, the maps above hide another important fact: no region is all blue or all red. The boldly colored maps might have you believe that Lane County, Oregon, is completely Democratic or that Spokane County, Washington, is completely Republican. Not so.

    The maps below use red and blue squares to represent voters in the 2020 presidential election. This makes it clearer that:

    • Most of the people live in a few counties, while other counties have very few people per acre.
    • There are both red and blue voters in every county.
    • Overall, there are more blue than red voters in both Oregon and Washington.

    Map showing how some Oregon counties voted for Trump, but voters favor Biden

    Map showing how some Washington counties voted for Trump, but voters voted for BidenBubbles sized by number of voters 

    If you don’t like all those squares, here’s a map with small and large bubbles to show the number of voters in each county. This one goes a step further in showing the diversity of Cascadia: not only are counties not all red or all blue, but people didn’t only vote for Biden (blue circles) or Trump (red circles), but also for other candidates. This is a truer, more human-centric view of Cascadia: a lot of people live near the I-5 corridor, and there are folks with differing views no matter where you go. You can in fact meet Trump voters in Portland and Biden voters in Malheur.

    Half of Oregon voters live in just 3 counties, while the other half are spread out in 33 counties

    Map showing how half of Washington voters live in just 3 counties, while the other half are spread out in 36 countiesZooming out further to the national level shows the power of depicting voters on the background of the land instead of pretending the land is the same as the voters. The maps here, for instance, give more accurate views of US voters than the red/blue state maps you see on election night. The geographical map is the background, but voters are front and center. It clearly shows that:

    • much of the country east of the Mississippi River is densely populated, whereas the Mountain West comprises large swaths of unoccupied land;
    • large numbers of voters clustered in big cities voted for Biden;
    • many voters spread out across the North, South, and Appalachia chose Trump; and
    • there are conservative voters in cities and progressive voters in less populated areas.

    Americans deserve better maps 

    Visuals are critical tools for helping people quickly grasp complex information. But they should depict that information honestly, not deceive viewers into false understandings.

    In the case of maps, they’re great for showing how long it might take to get from one end of the country to the other and even to remind viewers of the vast spread of geographical realities Americans live within from day to day. But when it comes to showing how people vote, maps should show voters and not pretend that acres are people.

    Particularly in a time when Americans feel more politically divided than ever, they deserve maps that help to show the more nuanced mix of votes and values that actually exist across their polities. Maps like those above. (And might I suggest you bring a copy to Culp’s next campaign rally?)