A man waves a Democratic flag while facing Trump supporters outside the Clark County Election Department in North Las Vegas on November 7, 2020 (AFP / Ronda Churchill)

Old US election map misleads on voting trend in 2020 election

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A map of the US covered in overwhelmingly red Republican votes is circulating as President Donald Trump claims without evidence that his Democratic rival Joe Biden stole the election. But the map is from the 2016 presidential contest. The 2020 results saw states that were red four years ago flip to blue, and the geographical depiction of the votes can also misleadingly appear to favor Republicans because it does not show the Electoral College results.

“Pretty RED to me,” reads the caption on a November 9 Facebook post shared more than 5,000 times, accompanied by a map of the US awash in red counties representing Republican votes.

A screenshot of a Facebook post taken on November 10, 2020

The same screenshot has also been used in a meme here, on Twitter here and in other posts here and here

A Facebook search showed that posts sharing the screenshot started circulating on social media as early as November 6, 2020, when the race was still very tight between the two White House candidates in battleground states. 

AFP Fact Check ran a reverse image search and traced the picture to a Wikimedia Commons page of county results for the 2016 US presidential election shaded by vote shares -- with exact matches in articles written prior to the election, such as here and here

A Wikimedia Commons map shows the 2016 US presidential election shaded by vote shares

The above map went through several updates between November and December 2016, as the vote tally was updated.

By comparison, the first version of the Wikimedia Commons map for the 2020 county election results -- which was published on November 9 and updated on November 10 -- still contains gray areas, not matching the older version of the map that is circulating on social media.

An official fan page for former Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon posted a map similar to the one in the posts two days after the election, on November 5. The map, also published on Wikimedia Commons, is based on the 2016 presidential election county results, colored in blue or red depending on the voting majority in each county -- last updated on January 4, 2017. 

The image on the left shows the map shared by some Facebook users after the 2020 election, while the image on the right is the original Wikimedia Commons file showing updated 2016 election results by county

Although Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina and Alaska remain undecided, the 2020 election results appear very different from those of four years ago.

US president-elect Joe Biden has rebuilt the Democratic "blue wall" with victories in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. He is projected by some media organizations to have taken back Arizona and is leading in Georgia, two states last won by Democrats in the elections of 1996 and 1992 respectively. 

A more accurate representation of how people voted in the 2020 presidential election, as of November 10, can be seen in this AFP map, below.

An AFP graphic, last updated on November 10, 2020, shows how people voted in the 2020 presidential election in the US

Traditional US electoral maps are also misleading, Karim Douieb, co-founder of Jetpack.ai, a data science company based in Brussels, Belgium, explains on his website.

In 2019, Douieb worked on a data project about the 2016 presidential election results and compared how they could be visualized nationwide, depending on the different metrics used -- traditional maps, Electoral College maps, cartograms, and popular vote maps. 

Although traditional maps “are the most geographically accurate representation of the election,” and speak to a majority of citizens who would understand cartograms with more difficulty, “they are not good at representing electoral importance,” Douieb told AFP via email.

Traditional maps “should be complemented by other types of representations,” he added.

The geographic surface area of the state of Montana, for example, is almost 17 times bigger than the state of New Jersey, the website gives as an example. "Acres don't vote, people do," it says. 

New Jersey has 14 electoral votes as opposed to Montana's three. The latter also has one of the lowest population densities in the nation, while New Jersey has one of the highest.

For his project, Douieb “wanted to create an alternative visual where each county is represented by a dot sized proportionally to the amount of its associated voters, offering a much different reading of the situation. This arguably provides a better understanding of how the country voted,” he told AFP. 

For the 2020 election, US media companies have also revisited ways to represent results on a map more accurately, such as with this Wall Street Journal cartogram that sizes states proportionally to their weight in the Electoral College, or this New York Times interactive map that focuses on the shift in votes compared to 2016.

US media on November 7 projected Biden the winner with 279 Electoral College votes against  214 for Trump, who falsely claimed that he had won, and has refused to concede.

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