The 2012 Electoral College Map Done Right: States Sized By Votes, Not Geographic Size

It drives me crazy to see news outlets with US maps showing the states estimated to be either going for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election based on the geographic size of those states, rather than the number of Electoral College votes they carry. There are better maps they could and should use. Below, a guide to some you should check out.

I’m not a fan of the Electoral College system, where a US presidential candidate can potentially win (and some have) even though a majority of people vote for the loser. That just seems wrong. I also dislike that despite living in a populous state, because California’s typically seen as safe for Democrats, we’re largely written off — as are most other states deemed in one camp or the other. Only the few “swing” states get attention.

Still, that’s the current system. If we have to have that system, let’s at least have our TV news channels and publications show maps that represent correctly. A map of votes based on geography sure isn’t doing the job.

Consider this map at CNN, which is similar to what you’ll see aired on CNN and other news channels:

That makes it seem as if support of Romney is sweeping across the nation. Look at all that red! Victory is assured. The problem is that many of those red states are geographically large but small in the number of electoral college votes they carry. Meanwhile, some small states such as those in New England carry more more votes than their geographic size suggests.

Now consider this, from the New York Times:

That’s a map of the US that more accurately reflects what’s happening in the election, because rather than being drawn to geographic size, it’s showing voting size. States are illustrated in proportion to each other based on the number of Electoral College votes they have. Done this way, the election is more accurately seen as very close.

Maps that aren’t based on geography are called “cartograms” and can be done in various ways. Here’s another example from the Huffington Post, which I especially like:

Time has a hybrid of the above model, if when using its map, you’re select the “Electoral vote” option:


Still want a better sense of the traditional US shape? Princeton offers once based on combined polling data plotted into a weighted map:

If you like that, then definitely check out the 2012 Electoral College Calculator blog which takes estimates from various sources done on traditional maps and applies them to ones reflecting votes:

That blog is run by Jeffrey Albertson, who wrote a great post on various ways to better map electoral votes for Daily Kos earlier this year, including some of the examples I’ve listed above.

Also see this article that talks about ways to produce these types of cartograms with yet another variation:

That’s the 2008 presidential vote. Personally, I don’t like this particular style, because I feel it’s too close to a geographic map. Rather than break me out of a geographic mindset, I keep looking at it feeling it’s wrong because it’s so close to being “right.”

Here’s hoping that CNN might decide there’s a place for cartograms among its holograms and other whiz-bang tech that it’s currently using for the US presidential elections. The same is true for any news outlet. Give us a map that’s a true guide to votes, not to geography. After all, that’s what you’re trying to map out.


  1. mtx says

    Thankfully, we are not a country of majority rules. “Tyranny of the majority” is what our Founding Fathers sought to avoid…and did with the EC. We are a “representative democracy” operating as a “republican” form of government as stated in Article IV, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution.

  2. Dwight D.E. says

    So instead of tyranny of the majority we have tyranny of the small states. A vote in Wyoming has about 5 times the weight of a vote in California. But worse than that is that if you live in a “safe” state (like WY or CA), there’s hardly any reason to vote for President at all. The EC means that candidates only pay attention to swing states. Without the EC, all votes would be equal.

  3. Stuart says

    I would also add that our representative government was created by the Founders to avoid the passions of the people…which can often be represented in “majority” voting structures. Thank goodness there are checks and balances and differences in time for members of the House and Senate. Notice how WHACKY the House is right now, a group that is elected in two-year cycles. The President (every four years) falls in the middle of it all. This is why Senators are on six-year terms. It was once explained to me that Senators temper the passions of the people due to their length of term and experience. In the old days, when coffee was too hot, the coffee would be poured into the saucer to cool, and then placed back into the coffee…thereby cooling it. This is how the interaction in congress happens between the House and the Senate.

  4. Mark says

    We don’t have a “tyranny of the small states”. Worse, we have a “tyranny of the few states that through artifacts of the right combination of urban centers and rural counties decide the presidency”.

    It’s a very bizarre system that is far from what the framers imagined. But then, our entire presidential election is far from what they imagined. We have “almost popular vote” whereas they figured that post-Washington, the House would select nearly all presidents as they failed to predict the rise of the two-party system and presumed no electoral majorities would follow.

    Given that we have a de facto popular vote system that disenfranchises 80% of the country — red and blue alike — it’s time for National Popular Vote to get a more serious look. Perhaps when demographics remove another couple of red states the Republicans will get on board.

  5. Clint says

    Just a little food for thought, look at all those red states, pick and then compare their governments fiscal stability and overall economic environment to anyone of those blue states. I believe you will find the red states are handling themselves much better, ie lower unemployment lower budget deficits and a better standard living.
    Yet the socialistic blue states drive our national government because of large population centers pushing their irresponsible spending and regulatory ideologies on the country as a whole.
    Welfare has a place in society, but it will be our downfall if we cannot agree to reign in these costs. So we in the small states may not be as abundant as those in large, but our voices would be watered down without the EC.
    In my humble opinion maybe we as country should look how ND MT WY conduct their governments more often an listen to the squatters in NY and CA less.

  6. says

    Clint, look here:

    That’s federal aid to various states. The darker the color, the more they receive. ND MT WY are all as dark as you can get. NY is pretty dark; CA is pretty light.

    You might also look at this:

    California, for example, pays out more in federal tax than it gets.

    But the bottom line is that ever other federal office gets elected based on a popular vote. One person; one vote. We maintain an electoral college for very old fashioned reasons.

  7. says

    Great examples…

    Electoral Votes should be a choice every vote counts not Electoral driven…it could swing either way by default…

  8. Clint says

    Those maps are misleading as they are per capita, most of the money those smaller states are for ag and infastructure to power and feed the rest of the country…
    Each state gets 2 sentators, and a number of rep proprotional to the their population so California has 53 house of reps out the 435, it seems that state has an more than enough power in congress…
    But your arguement is that we shouldn’t use the electoral college because its old is a little more than ridiculous because it is just as old the rest our national election framework.
    The point was to give smaller states a stronger voice because the framer’s understood that the larger states would garner too much political and economic power if we didn’t govern the way we do now.
    For example, nearly 1 out of every 10 Americans live in California. So based on your ideolgy, they should get 10 senators and only 43 represenatives, decreasing their role in the House but expanding their influence in the Senate. But then smaller states would have no or shared Senators and Represenatives…
    The EC also drives the two party system. A two party system keeps this country as untied as possible because at nearly all times at least 50% of voters have a common goal, if we had more parties the country would be more divided and secular like some forming republics and eureopean countries.
    Point is, the EC is a good thing and besides if you want your vote to “count” more just move to a small state and quit whinning :)

  9. says

    Clint, California is a huge agriculture state — in fact, by far the largest in agriculture receipts. It not only feeds itself; it helps feed the nation and the world, and apparently does so despite having a net loss in federal spending.

    But so I’m clear, you seem to think that states that lean Democratic are “socialist” but red states should get a pass on receiving government money because they feed the nation. That sounds pretty socialistic. Shouldn’t they be so in demand by those who want to be fed that a free market ensures they earn all they need. After all, it’s not like government is building businesses or anything, right?

    As for big states small states, that’s the reason why we have two separate chambers of congress, so that big states have to compromise with small states to get legislation passed.

    For electing a president, we have an outdated system that was created in part because of big state small state concerns but more because some of the founding fathers liked the idea of democracy but, you know, not too much. Like oh dear, no, we can’t let people directly elect a president. What if they aren’t smart enough?

    My “ideology” is that big state vs. small state is already covered in the US Congress having two houses. It’s also that we have a popular vote for US President, just like the 17th Amendment allowed for a popular vote of US Senators. That’s a change that I think would let everyone’s vote count more, not just those in big states, because there are small states with practically no electoral votes that get ignored.

    But my point behind this post wasn’t to argue that the electoral college should be abolished. I’d like to see that happen, but it’s not likely. Since it’s not likely, at the very least, we should have maps that represent the voting power of the states, not the geographic size of them.