American Democracy Update

During the wild ride that was the 2020 election, I created a new way of visualizing election maps. I started by making a new electoral vote map to replace the one that gets shoved in our faces every four years, but it quickly became clear that my new style of map would be just as useful for showing the legislative branch.

Instead of showing a traditional map that massively distorts the apparent legislative power of large-area states and large-area congressional districts, I made each seat the same size. And because many House districts have completely ridiculous shapes, I displayed each district as the same shape – a hexagon, for easiest tessellation.

The result is two maps – one for the U.S. Senate and one for the U.S. House of Representatives – that show the distribution of political power in the U.S. legislature as it really is. From there, it’s easy to add the names and political parties of each representative to give a comprehensive picture of the legislature.

We last looked at this picture this March, with an update on the Senate, followed by an update on the House. How does it look today?

There has been no change in the membership of the Senate – see the map below, where Senators are shown by name in the approximate location of the state they represent, color coded by party. Red means Republican, blue means Democratic, and light blue means Independent Senators who have joined the Democratic Caucus.

The current United States Senate (click to open a larger version in a new tab)

Meanwhile there have been several changes in the House:

The current United States House of Representatives (click to open a larger version in a new tab)
  • Two elections have finally been settled after multiple recounts, and the candidates have finally taken their seats
  • It’s been a bad year for deaths in the House
    • On December 29, 2020 – before he could even take office – Luke Letlow (R-LA-5) died of COVID-19. A special election was held on March 20, 2021, which was won by his widow Julia Letlow (R-LA-5).
    • On February 7, 2021, Ron Wright (R-TX-6) died, also of COVID-19. A special election was held on July 27th, won by Jake Ellzey (R-TX-6).
    • On April 6, 2021, Alcee Hastings (D-FL-20) died of pancreatic cancer at age 84. A special election will be held on January 11, 2022 to name his replacement.
  • In happier news, some representatives have left for other jobs
    • On January 15, 2021, Cedric Richmond (D-LA-2) resigned to become Director of the Office of Public Liaison in President Biden’s cabinet. A special election on May 11th chose Troy Carter (D-LA-2) as his replacement.
    • On March 10th, Marcia Fudge (D-OH-11) resigned to become the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. A special election to replace her will be held on November 2nd.
    • On March 16th, Deb Haaland (D-NM-2) resigned to become Secretary of the Interior. On June 1st, a special election chose Melanie Stansbury (D-NM-2) to replace her.
    • On May 16th, Steve Stivers (R-OH-15) resigned to become the President and CEO of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. A special election to replace him will be held on November 2nd.

So the current party count is: 220 Democratic, 212 Republican, 3 vacant seats. Here is the map again; be sure to click on it for a larger version where you can more easily read the names of the representatives.

The current United States House of Representatives (click to open a larger version in a new tab)

As membership changes, more updates to come… American Democracy updates!

Afghanistan: The Euroscale of tragedy

The Taliban taking over Afghanistan still sucks

Today’s post has the same general idea as yesterday’s post – how can we begin to understand the scale of the tragedy that is the Taliban taking over Afghanistan?

It can be difficult, because Afghanistan feels so far away and so mysterious. So I make a simple map of the cities in Afghanistan and their populations, supplemented by another map labeling each city with the name of a city with roughly the same population.

Yesterday, I chose those equivalent-population city labels from cities in the United States; today, I am labeling Afghan cities with the names of cities in Europe with similar populations. See the footnote at the end of this post to learn how I did it, and how you can make a similar map of your own.

Here it is, my map of Afghanistan, with major cities and their populations (click on the image for a larger version):

Cities in Afghanistan (click for a larger version)

And here is the same map, but with Afghan cities relabled with cities in Europe with similar populations. As you can see, there are some very big cities in Afghanistan.

Cities in Afghanistan labeled with European cities of equivalent population (click for a larger version)

To see it even more clearly, look at the two maps side-by-side. Move the slider in the middle back and forth to switch between the cities in Afghanistan (and their populations), and their European equivalents.

Use the slider to wipe back-and-forth between Afghani cities (left) and their American equivalents (right)

Imagine that you live in one of these European cities – a big one like Madrid or Manchester, or a smaller one like Waterford, Ireland or Sint-Truiden, Belgium.

Now imagine that your city has been taken over by the Taliban.

Footnote: how to show cities on a map of Afghanistan

To help us (including me) learn about what Afghanistan is really like, I used the Natural Earth 1:10m geography dataset to make a Python notebook in SciServer to make a simple map of cities in Afghanistan, and their populations. If you’d like to play with the data yourself, comment with your SciServer username and I’ll add you to the research group. I’m also hoping to make a kaggle.com notebook for this work, but something is buggy with Kaggle and it’s not saving the output image files.

Afghanistan: The scale of tragedy

What I can say about the Taliban taking over Afghanistan

What can I even say about the Taliban taking over Afghanistan?

It’s terrible, and a lot of people will die this week, and a lot of people will suffer for decades to come.

Honestly, it’s probably good that Kabul surrendered so quickly. After the Taliban took over Kandahar, Mazar-e Sharif, and Jalalabad (in that order), they controlled all access roads into Kabul, and had the city fully surrounded and ready for an old-fashioned siege. Kabul could have held out for a few weeks or a few months before inevitably falling – at which point the Taliban would be even more angry and murdery than they would have been already. At least this way, more people get to live.

My only connection to Afghanistan is that I liked their cricket team and their national anthem (both of which no longer exist, since the Taliban have banned both sports and music), and even I am heartbroken by this news. I cannot even imagine how horrific this must be for the people who actually live there.

Part of what makes it hard for us to imagine the scale of this tragedy here in the U.S. is that Afghanistan is so far away and seems so mysterious. Even though we have been there for 20 years, we generally know very little about it, even those of us as geography-obsessed as I am. Where exactly is Jalalabad? How far is Bamian from Mazar-e Sharif? How many people live in Kabul?

To help us (including me) learn about what Afghanistan is really like, I used the Natural Earth 1:10m geography dataset to make a Python notebook in SciServer to make a simple map of cities in Afghanistan, and their populations. If you’d like to play with the data yourself, comment with your SciServer username and I’ll add you to the research group. I’m also hoping to make a kaggle.com notebook for this work, but something is buggy with Kaggle and it’s not saving the output image files.

Here it is, my map of Afghanistan, with major cities and their populations (click on the image for a larger version):

Cities in Afghanistan (click for a larger version)

But that map is still a bit abstract. Great, so Kabul has 3.1 million people, but how many people is that exactly?

A good way to wrap your mind around what these places are like is to compare them to cities you might be more familiar with. That’s what I did in the map below. For each city in the map above, I chose a city in the U.S. with a similar population. Here it is (click on the image for a larger version) – and there some very big cities in Afghanistan.

Cities in Afghanistan labeled with U.S. cities of equivalent population (click for a larger version)

To see it even more clearly, look at the two maps side-by-side. Move the slider in the middle back and forth to switch between the cities in Afghanistan (and their populations), and their U.S. equivalents.

Use the slider to wipe back-and-forth between Afghani cities (left) and their American equivalents (right)

Imagine that you live in one of these American cities – a big one like Chicago or Baltimore, or a smaller one like Apopka, FL or Scottsbluff, NE.

Now imagine that your city has been taken over by the Taliban.

April Fools’, except it’s not

Welcome to an annual series I haven’t actually done on the blog yet: April Fools’, except it’s not.

A screenshot from the original New York production of Hamilton
The hottest ticket on Broadway is [rolls d20]…. a hip-hop musical about treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton?

The concept is simple: write about the modern world in such a way that it would sound like a bizarre April Fools’ joke to someone from the past. I wrote a version of this on social media in 2015 and 2016, but then in 2017 the joke stopped being funny. Fortunately, “Donald Trump was the President of the United States” actually is much funnier than “Donald Trump is the President of the United States,” so the joke can come back.

So imagine that it’s April 1st, 1999, and you have just received this letter from the future. Pretty good joke, right?

Except it’s not.

Dear 1999 fool,

The year is 2021, and the United States has been at war for 19 years.

Everything has changed in the two decades since terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center, but the truth is the war has been going on for so long that it hardly ever makes the news anymore. Instead, the big news is something far more deadly: a new disease called COVID-19 has become a global pandemic that has killed nearly three million people and counting.

An illustration from a children's book of fables of the Ant and the Grasshopper
“What?,” cried the Ant in surprise. “Haven’t you stored anything away for the winter?”
“STFU LIBNAZI,” replied the Grasshopper.

Fortunately, the end is may finally be in sight. We have four separate vaccines, created semi-collaboratively by four separate pharmaceutical companies at never-before-imagined speed. But 25 percent of Americans say they would rather take their chances with catching a deadly disease. We also know that wearing a thin cloth mask over your nose and mouth can cut the probability of transmission to near zero, but many people are saying that being told to wear a thin cloth mask over your mouth and nose is just like the Holocaust. It’s like the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper, except that instead of the Grasshopper laughing at the Ant’s warning, the Grasshopper calls him a Nazi.

Split-screen image
Left: Joe Biden
Right: Donald Trump
The current and former Presidents of the United States

President Joe Biden has promised that vaccines will be available to all Americans by May 1st. Yes, that Joe Biden, who is still around at age 78, his 1980s-era scandals forgotten. But that’s not even the weird part. The weird part is that the previous president was Donald Trump. Yes, that Donald Trump. The national debt increased so much during the Trump administration that Republicans are now saying that the national debt isn’t so bad. Trump also claimed, with no evidence at all, that he was the real winner of last year’s Presidential election that he lost. His wife once posed for a nude lesbian photo shoot, but don’t worry, the Trumps oppose gay marriage.

A wild caterpie appears!
Gotta catch ’em all!

Remember last year when Republicans impeached President Clinton for having an affair with an intern? Republicans now say that the President’s personal life doesn’t matter and the President should never be impeached for any reason.

If you’re into technology and have enough disposable income, you might have a cell phone – today, everyone has them. My phone comes with a video camera, a television, and music player to listen to songs like last year’s number one song, WAP (which of course stands for wet-ass pussy). It also offers instant access to all the knowledge of the world. I use it to catch Pokemon.

Have you heard of Tom Brady, the backup quarterback for the University of Michigan? He has now won seven Super Bowls, more than any single NFL team. But in Brazil he is still mostly known as Gisele Bündchen’s husband.

For the rest of 2021, we’re all looking forward to… anything, really. We’ve all been stuck inside for so long due to COVID-19. Here’s to better times ahead!

Mapping Democracy: the 117th U.S. House of Representatives

Democracy in the United States is not what it first appears.

Last week, we looked at how maps of the U.S. Senate can mislead, and I showed a new map that visually reflects the reality of state-by-state Senate representation, and also leaves room for additional information.

Today, we’ll the same thing for the more complicated example of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Don’t worry, I’ll explain this later in the post (click to open a larger version in a new tab)

Unlike the Senate, where each state is represented equally by two Senators, representation in the House is based on population as recorded in the once-a-decade national census. The United States is divided into 435 Congressional Districts, and with a 2010 U.S. population of about 310 million, each House member represents about 700,000 people.

Districts are set and voted on at the state level, which means no matter how few people live in a state, that state is guaranteed to have at least one House member. The number of House members per state varies from one each in the lowest-population states (from Alaska to Montana) to 53 in California. The boundaries of each district are set by the state legislature or an entity they assign. Districts must be contiguous (no enclaves or exclaves), but other than that anything goes. This opens House representation to all sorts of partisan strategic fuc kery – but much more on that later.

The question here is: how can we visualize U.S. House membership in a way that fairly shows the distribution of power, and also leaves room for other information? I’ll follow the same approach I used to visualize the U.S. Senate.

Most depictions of the House of Representatives that I have seen fall into one of two categories.

This:

A traditional map of the U.S. House of Representatives with accurately-drawn districts
A map of U.S. House of Representatives districts with accurate borders. The main map shows the entire U.S., with side maps for: Alaska, Hawaii, New York City, greater Los Angeles, and greater Chicago.

Click to open a larger version in a new window.

or this:

A graph of the House of Representatives showing one dot per representative
A more abstract map of the House: one dot equals one representative. Red = Republican, blue = Democratic, gray= currently vacant

Click to open a larger version in a new window.

As we saw with the Senate, each of these views has advantages and disadvantages. The map view makes a clear connection with U.S. geography and shows district borders accurately, but the vastly different sizes of the districts make it look like a vast sea of red, when in reality the House has a Democratic majority. The dot view makes it clear that all districts enjoy equal representation, but at the price of making an abstract visualization that looks nothing like the United States.

And as with the Senate, why not combine the advantages of both, and add some more information to the visualization?

Like this (click to open a larger version in a new window):

Map of the U.S. House of Representatives with colors representing parties: blue = Democratic (220), red = Republican (212), white = vacant (4)
Each hexagon represents one U.S. House member. States are in their approximately correct geographic positions, outlined in yellow, and each district is in approximately its correct place in the state. The colors are the same as before, and each hexagon is labeled with the name of that district’s representative.

Click on the map for a larger view – especially recommended this time so you can read the names of all the representatives

Each hexagon represents a single representative. The hexagons are color-coded, blue for Democratic, red for Republican, and white for vacant (Louisiana-2 is blue because the seat will be filled in a runoff special election on April 24th, but both candidates are Democratic).

States are outlined in yellow borders, each in its approximate position and orientation. In addition, whenever possible I put each district is in approximately its correct place in the state. For example, Florida’s 1st Congressional District sits at the western tip of the Florida Panhandle including Pensacola (and is represented by Republican pedophile Matt Gaetz, allegedly), so its hexagon at the far northwestern end. Florida’s 26th Congressional District includes Homestead and Key West (and is represented by Republican Carlos Giménez), so its hexagon is at the far southern tip.

An American astronaut realizes that Earth is all the Ohio House map before an Ohio astronaut shoots him
It’s all Ohio: Ohio’s 16 congressional districts (click for a larger meme)

As usual with images on this blog, you can click on the image to see a larger view, and in this case, I would definitely recommend it so you can read all the names. The linked image is quite large (3600 x 1996 pixels), so it may take time to load and you may need to scroll to see it all.

From now on, whenever I talk about the House, including in posts about future elections, I will use this map. I have some ideas about how to improve the map, and I’d love to hear yours.

So what’s next? As I alluded to above, real congressional districts are not hexagons. They are usually designed by state legislatures – and because state legislatures are partisan, districts can be drawn in a partisan way. And they are.

Welcome to Mapping Democracy!

Mapping Democracy: the 117th U.S. Senate

Democracy in the United States is not what it first appears.

There are many reasons for this, of course, but I am convinced that one of the reasons is that the maps we use to understand are democracy are misleading. Consider the U.S. Senate: two senators per state. Most depictions of the Senate that I have seen fall into one of two categories.

This:

Senators by state: blue = two Democratic Senators, red = two Republican Senators, purple = one of each
The light blue in Vermont and Maine stands for Independent Senators who work with the Democratic caucus

or this:

A more abstract map of the Senate: one dot equals one Senator. Red = Republican, blue = Democratic, light blue = Independent caucusing Democratic

Each of these views has advantages and disadvantages. The map view makes a clear connection with U.S. geography and shows which parties represent which states, but it the different sizes of states obscure the fact that each Senator, regardless of how much land area the state takes up, gets exactly one vote. The dot view makes it clear that states are equal, but at the price of making an abstract visualization that looks nothing like the United States.

Why not combine the advantages of both, and add some more information to the visualization?

Like this (click to open a larger version in a new window):

Each hexagon represents one senator. States are in their approximately correct geographic positions, outlined in yellow. The colors are the same as before, and each hexagon is labeled with the name of a Senator.

Click on the map for a larger view – especially recommended this time so you can read the names of the Senators

Each state, no matter how large or small, no matter how many or few people live there, is represented by two Senators. So in this visualization, each state has a yellow outline, and is placed approximately in its appropriate position and orientation. Maine is the tip of the mammoth’s trunk, Florida is its front hoof, Washington state is its tail, and so on.

Each state consists of two hexagons, one per Senator. Hexagons are color-coded by party: blue for Democratic, red for Republican, and light blue for the two Independent Senators who have joined the Democratic caucus.

And that’s another advantage of this map compared to the first: Ohio is not represented by a Senator from the Purple Party, it is represented by Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown and Republican Rob Porter. Lastly, each hexagon is labeled with each Senator’s name.

All Ohio: Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Rob Portman (R-OH)

As usual with images on this blog, you can click on the image to see a larger view, and in this case, I would definitely recommend it so you can read all the names. The linked image is quite large (3600 x 1996 pixels), so it may take time to load and you may need to scroll to see it all.

From now on, whenever I talk about the Senate, including in posts about future elections, I will use this map. I have some ideas about how to improve the map, and I’d love to hear yours. And if you know anything about American democracy, you can probably guess what’s next.

Welcome to Mapping Democracy!