Alligators Don’t Vote
On December 1, 2020, Gabriel Sterling stunned the country when he marched up to a podium and announced that someone “put out a noose” bearing the name of a Gwinnett County election contractor. This was not an isolated incident. Georgia’s Secretary of State, an election supervisor at the State Farm Arena, and election workers had all received death threats. Apparently, they all committed a horrifying crime — counting, the same skill I learned from my momma at the kitchen table with a box of Cheerios.
Like many Georgians, I was stunned. We all knew tempers were running hot across the state. Still, many of us wondered how it came to this.
The answer is simple. Various parties took our election numbers and used them to manipulate the public.
I certainly cannot argue that I was unaware that election misinformation often begins with a trusted news anchor standing beside a map on national television. Rather, I pretended that the stories they told do not have consequences because election results are self-evident. The winning candidate is sworn in. The loser goes home.
Now, I can no longer claim that “results are self-evident” or laughingly say “no one really believes that.” Real people draw false conclusions from carelessly presented data.
I know this because every two years, I have practically the same conversation. This year’s occurred on November 4, 2020, when my cellphone rang at the ungodly hour of 1:30 am.
I ignored it. Whoever it was could wait until I had eight hours of sleep and enough coffee to wake a comatose elephant. Then it rang again.
A second call in the middle of the night means someone’s dead or dying. I snatched up the phone and panicked when I saw one of my best friend’s names on the caller ID.
“Why’d they call Georgia a battleground? It wasn’t even close!” She then launched into a rant about how all the precincts in the state had reported and that Trump won 53%.
After explaining that Georgia still had hundreds of thousands of uncounted ballots, I texted her links to the United States Election Project, Georgia Votes, and the New York Times Interactive Election Results and hung up.
This was not a conversation with an unreasonable person, nor is she data illiterate. She’s a board-certified MD.
I did not question this conversation. Every election, I walk a friend or family member through a little back-of-the-envelope math and explain how the voting process works. To me, it was normal.
Now, I find myself returning to that fateful call with a question that I should have asked then but didn’t.
Based on commonly available information, were people unreasonable when they saw Georgia’s election night numbers and believed them?
At midnight on November 3, 2020, Georgia’s election data said one thing and only one thing. The state was a giant question mark with an estimated 3 out of 20 ballots cast not yet counted.
On election night, multiple national and local news outlets, including CNN, Fox News, ABC, MSNBC, and Atlanta’s 11Alive, knew Georgia was too early to call. Rather than presenting the complete picture, question mark included, they used the data trickling in to make the election more exciting.
MSNBC Early Missteps
At 10:03 pm on November 3, 2020, MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki opened Georgia’s map. For ten tiny seconds, he reviewed the situation on the ground. Trump was up 13 points. Biden needed “monster numbers…from the Atlanta metro area” if he wanted to stay in the game. The implication was clear.
MSNBC’s talking heads spent the next two hours repeating that Georgia was always a longshot. The state — officially listed as too early to call — was probably red.
As the night wore on, Kornacki continued updating results around the country. He also gamed out the worst-case scenario for Biden. Naturally, Georgia was red.
Then, at around 1:30 am, DeKalb county posted an update. According to MSNBC’s analysts, Georgia was no longer too early to call. It was too close. Within seconds, Kornacki was back in front of the map, explaining why they now thought Biden had a chance at winning Georgia. It was as if the previous two and a half hours of election day news coverage never happened. Yet, a month later, the ghost of red Georgia still haunts Republicans and Democrats alike.
A similar soap opera played out on Fox News.
The Fox News Narrative
Twelve minutes into their election night coverage, Katie Pavlich announced that Biden lost Florida. Although this eventually proved true, when the ticker scrolled across the bottom of the screen five minutes later, Florida was still too close to call. No one corrected her.
Nineteen minutes in, they were talking about how Georgia looked like Florida. Then, after 1 hour and 24 minutes of reporting, Bret Baier walked up to their map screen and said,
Do we think Donald Trump’s going to win Georgia? At the moment, I would say yes.
With the tap of a finger, he turned Georgia red.
Ten minutes later, Brit Hume requested clarification on whether their decision desk had called Georgia. The answer was an emphatic no.
Confusion at 11Alive (Atlanta)
While Baier showed off his fondness for the color red, Brendan Keefe stood beside 11Alive’s touchscreen. As a local anchor, he did not have a world-class team of analysts feeding him data through an earpiece. Instead, he relied on a steady feed of election numbers, maps, and turnout projections provided by the Associated Press (AP).
Full disclosure, Brendan Keefe’s careless election analysis cost me an hour of sleep.
At 12:10 am on November 4, he compared Georgia’s final 2016 presidential map with the in-progress 2020 map and mentioned that Trump’s 2020 vote total already exceeded his 2016 total. He pointed out that the two maps basically looked the same and then left viewers to draw the logical conclusion. While he stopped short of saying, “Trump won,” he heavily implied it.
Between 2016 and 2020, Georgia’s registered voter roll grew by over 1.7 million. In the lead-up to election day, Georgia was reporting record-breaking voting numbers. By November 2, Georgians had cast at least 3,912,819 early and absentee ballots, 95.61% of 2016’s presidential election total vote. Comparing a 2016 total to 2020 was meaningless, especially when the AP thought that 22% of Georgia’s vote remained uncounted.
No one mentioned that.
To make matters worse, the charts and maps provided by these networks on election night further supported the narrative that Trump won Georgia. This happened at Democratic-leaning MSNBC, Republican-leaning Fox News, and even local stations like 11Alive.
When Charts Lie
By 12:35 am on November 4, 2020, Fox News indicated that Georgia had already tallied over 4,164,457 presidential votes. That is 72,084 more than the total votes cast in the state’s 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump was up with 53%. Biden trailed with 47%.
Voters across the state took one look at charts like this and reached the obvious conclusion. Trump won Georgia.
The chart was a lie. Trump did not have 53.78% of the vote.
When Fox News labeled their bar charts with “83% in,” it did not indicate precincts reporting. They meant 83% of expected votes based on their turnout model. Therefore, Fox News believed Georgia had 852,961 uncounted votes remaining.
Few realized it, but the Fox News’ chart actually meant this.
Trump led Biden by 311,025 votes, but the uncounted votes weren’t in Republican-leaning Brantley County. No, these ballots included absentees and the most heavily Democratic counties in the state. Mathematically, Trump was in trouble.
The early numbers did not show a victory for either party. They said, “wait and see,” which is not an exciting story.
Over the next two days, election boards across the state counted absentee ballots. At the urging of Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, multiple counties authorized overtime and counted 24-hours a day. Then, on November 6 at 4:27 am, Clayton County released another update.
When Georgians woke up that morning, Biden led by almost 1,000 votes. To Republicans, it felt like they lost overnight. Later that morning, they received more bad news. Biden pulled ahead in Pennsylvania, and Georgia’s “safe” Republican-held US Senate seat went to a runoff.
Here is the final result as certified by the state of Georgia on November 20, 2020.
Although the recount slightly shifted the totals for each candidate, the outcome did not change.
As counties began the hand count audit, emotions ran high. Some turned their gaze from the charts to the maps. You’ll find their posts littering social media sites along with the hashtags #stopthesteal, #standwithtrump, and #holdthelinepatriots. Here’s the gist.
That darn Biden number is as wrong as wearing a baseball cap during church; just look at the map.
As I believe that amplifying conspiracy theories is highly irresponsible, I will not link to these posts. If you wish to look them up, start with Twitter’s advanced search. For Parler, type site:parler.com into Google along with your search terms.
The Great Map Deception
In 1976, NBC debuted the first election day map. That night, NBC knocked CBS off its pedestal and won the election-night ratings game. All it took was plastic, lightbulbs, and a giant AC unit to keep their map from melting and burning down the studio. ABC and CBS mocked the idea and then jumped on the map bandwagon themselves for the 1980 election.
The maps began as a rating gimmick. Today’s are still a gimmick. They designed them to look pretty, not to convey accurate information about an incoming vote count.
Here’s an example, using election data I pulled from the Georgia Secretary of State’s office. Look at this map. Did A win or B?
Here’s a precinct map of the same election. Notice that Fort Stewart and Fort Benning are both blank. Do you still have the same opinion?
Purple won, right?
Now, find the big toe sticking down in the southeastern corner of the state. Look to the left — in Georgia, not Florida — of that toe. Welcome to the Okefenokee Swamp, the largest blackwater swamp in North America. It’s 700-square-miles mostly populated by alligators, not people.
The purple and green maps are not a random election. I simply changed the colors on Georgia’s final 2020 presidential election map.
In 2020, the Okefenokee Swamp voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. The problem is that alligators do not vote.
This thematic map style, called a choropleth, can either show how many people live in an area or how they vote. Votes win elections, not land area.
From a ratings perspective, these maps are visually stunning. As an added bonus, you can use them to support any chart and any narrative because, by design, they cannot show the entire story. You cannot correctly interpret these maps at a glance. Therefore, you need anchors. Anchors require advertisers. These maps are good for business but bad for America.
In Georgia, most of us hang our hats in cities and towns, not the Okefenokee. This map shows where and how Georgians voted. Each pixel is a voter. Looking at it, you cannot say who won Georgia because Georgia was that close.
What Gets Lost
Most Republican voters are not illogical, gun-toting psychos who are refusing to accept reality. It’s easy to slap someone with these labels, especially if you voted for the other guy. But keep in mind that at 1:30 am on November 4, Democrats believed the same numbers.
Although each news outlet handled their coverage slightly differently, they deployed the same vote counts and percentages as their competitors. Their in-house voter turnout estimates varied. Everything else was cookie-cutter down to the basic red and blue maps with red and blue charts. The coverage also followed the same basic model — maps, more maps, and statistics. Election Night was the story of the year, and no one wanted to miss out on the gravy train by deviating from the prescribed formula.
Across the board, they played games with our election. Now, their careless handling of our voting information provides “evidence” of election fraud. It will happen again. Just look at the maps.
All maps and charts were created with R. The code is available on github.