Maps lie because they simplify. They lie in different ways, to show certain realities, and electoral maps are no different.
In places where there are few people, hundreds of square miles turn red or blue (but usually red) because those voters cast their ballots in a certain way.
The map above lies to you by implying that Washington is a red state with some blue areas.
There’s some truth to this. East of the Cascade curtain, every county but one voted for Donald Trump. That is a huge swath of land, which Republicans dominate. But consider this: More people crowd into Husky Stadium on game day than voted in most of those counties.
Here’s a more accurate map of Washington state’s presidential election results:
It also lies, of course: That deep blue blob in the center is not really what King County looks like.
This is a type of map known as a cartogram, which distorts a normal map to show a set of data. In this case, it changes the size of each county to reflect how many people voted for president there.
Why is this better than a traditional map? It more directly captures why we look at electoral maps.
When you look at that first map, you’re looking at something designed to show county administrative boundaries, so the geographic accuracy matters.
This kind of map is useful for answering questions like, “Which police department is responsible for crimes occurring in the state?” or, “what’s the property tax rate in a particular place?” Those questions depend on geography.
But statewide election results do not. All that matters is how many people in a state voted for one candidate and how many voted for another. It’s a mistake to use a geographically accurate map to show something that doesn’t depend on geography at all.
The Electoral College and the Senate both over-represent rural voters and under-represent urban ones, because urban voters are concentrated in small geographic areas. Looking at a normal geographic map of election results makes this seem perfectly reasonable: Vast swaths of red and tiny splotches of blue correlate with over-represented rural Republican voters and under-represented urban Democratic voters.
We’re in unusual territory now, as two of the last five presidential elections have been won by the loser of the popular vote. If we’re going to find a way out to understanding, we’re going to need to use some reliable maps to help us.
Correction, 10 p.m., 11/18/2016: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Asotin County's position in Washington state.