My Kingdom for a Needle

I am exhausted. I tried to stay up late enough to catch the absentee ballots from Washington County. Alas, I did not quite make it. (You better bet I will be drinking all the caffeine today.) But someone else did not quite make it through the night. Or rather, something. What was it? The New York Times election night needle.

To understand why the Times made the needle, read this really great explainer. The super short version: it tries to forecast the results of that particular election day, accounting for things like uncounted votes. On television, analysts and large interactive screens can show how, usually, urban districts are counted first then followed by slower-to-return rural areas. But for people following results solely online, those nuances might well be lost. Enter the needle.

Trust the Needle
Trust the Needle

Last night, like much of the Twitterverse I follow for politics, I had the needle open in one tab. But as the results began to come in, something odd was happening on the Times’ results page. The votes were being displayed in a precinct-by-precinct fashion in Allegheny, Washington, and Greene Counties. But Westmoreland was oddly grey. It turned out, the county elections board was not, I suppose, digitally publishing the precinct results, only county-wide.

Whilst the Needle spins…
Whilst the Needle spins…

Fun fact, the needle’s model is apparently built on precinct results. So how do you have a needle if something like 30% of the model’s required or expected data will not be available? The Times tweeted about it a few times, but ultimately pulled it down. Better to not have it and be right than have it wrong just to have it.

Needle down…
Needle down…

But that brings me to the second point about the needle. Well done to BuzzFeed’s Decision Desk HQ, who were presciently concerned about the ability of the county to get precinct level results up online. So they sent a reporter, as in a human being, to Westmoreland to get the analogue results and then upload them to BuzzFeed’s own results spreadsheet. (I never did find a BuzzFeed live results page.)

Who knows the budget difference between the New York Times’s graphics/politics desks and that of BuzzFeed’s, but the ability to put a single person in Westmoreland made the difference for BuzzFeed, whose coverage via Decision Desk HQ, made for a more compelling following because they were,  old school like, reading out results as they came in via reporters. And because there were no exit polls in the election, we had to wait for all the votes. Strangely, it almost felt like watching a UK general election where you have to wait hours for some constituencies to announce results. Though this election had a noticeable lack of Raving Monster Loony candidates.

I bring up the BuzzFeed contribution to the night because it does show how sometimes the sheer fact of placing a reporter on the ground can yield tremendous results. Come November, no, I don’t think any single media organisation can afford to put a reporter in every single US county. But I would bet the Times will be working on how to better precinct proof their needle.

Credit for the piece goes to Nate Cohn, Josh Katz, Sarah Almukhtar, and Matthew Bloch.

Pennsylvania 18th Congressional District: The Special Election

Today is Tuesday, 12 March. And that means a special election in the 18th congressional district of Pennsylvania, located in the far southwest of the state, near Pittsburgh.

Long story short, the district is uber Republican. But, the long-time Republican congressman, the avowedly pro-life type, was caught urging his mistress to abort their unborn child. Needless to say, that did not go over so well and so he resigned and now here we are with a veteran state legislator and veteran who calls himself “Trump before there was Trump” running for the Republicans and another veteran but also former federal prosecutor involved with fighting the opioid epidemic running for the Democrats.

Now about that uber Republican-ness. It is so much so that Democrats didn’t even run candidates in 2014 and 2016. And then in 2016, Trump won the district by 20 percentage points. But the polls show the Republican, Rick Saccone, with a very narrow lead within the margin of error. That in and of itself is tremendous news for Democrats in Pennsylvania. But what if Conor Lamb, the Democrat, were to actually somehow pull off a victory?

Well the Washington Post put together a great piece about how it really might not matter. Why? Because of that whole redistricting thing that I talked about. Neither Saccone nor Lamb live in the district that will replace today’s 18th.

The piece has several nice graphics showing just how much this area of the state will change and how that will impact these two candidates. But my favourite piece was actually this dot plot.

That's an enormous gap for Lamb to overcome
That’s an enormous gap for Lamb to overcome

It speaks more to today’s election than the future of the district. Everyone will undoubtedly be looking to see if Lamb can eke out a victory of Saccone this evening. But even if he loses narrowly, the Democrats can still take a glimmer of hope because of just how insurmountable the challenge was. It would require an enormous swing just to crack 50.1%.

Credit for the piece goes to Reuben Fischer-Baum and Kevin Uhrmacher.

Gerrymandering Pennsylvania Part IV

Yesterday the Pennsylvania Supreme Court published the new congressional district map of Pennsylvania, the latest chapter in this tale. Republicans in the state legislature have already said they will take this to the federal courts, but they tried that just a few weeks ago and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

So the Washington Post put together a map showing precinct-level data aggregated to the new borders and the result is a far more competitive map. Despite there being more Democrats in Pennsylvania, overall the map still remains leaning towards Republican, but there are more light blue and red, again meaning competitive, districts to be fought over.

Well now we have some sensible lines…
Well now we have some sensible lines…

I did hear on the radio this morning, however, that one implication will be in the new Pennsylvania 4th, which is comprised mainly of the Philadelphia suburban county of Montgomery. Right now, that area is so gerrymandered that there is not a candidate right now living with the new borders.

Credit for the piece goes to the Washington Post Wonkblog.

Gerrymandering Pennsylvania Part III

Almost a month ago I wrote about how the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was considering a case involving the state’s heavily gerrymandered US congressional districts, which some have called among the worst in the nation. About a week later the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that the map is in fact so gerrymandered it violates the Pennsylvania Constitution. It ordered the Republican-controlled legislature to create a new, non-gerrymandered map that would have to be approved by the Democratic governor. I did not write up that then Pennsylvanian Republicans appealed to the US Supreme Court—no graphics for that story. That appeal was rejected by Justice Alito, but with only days to spare the state legislature then created this new map and sent in this new one on Friday.

The proposed congressional districts, black lines, overlaid atop electoral precincts, the pretty colours.
The proposed congressional districts, black lines, overlaid atop electoral precincts, the pretty colours.

The problem, according to the governor and outside analysts, is that the map is just as gerrymandered as the previous one. Consequently, yesterday the governor rejected the new map and so now the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, working with outside experts in political redistricting, will create a new congressional map for Pennsylvania. Hopefully before May when the state has its first primaries.

But just how do we know that the new map, despite looking different, was just as gerrymandered. Well, the Washington Post plotted the election margins for districts in 2016 using precinct data versus their proposed 2018 map overlaid atop those same precincts. What did they get? Almost identical results. The districts are no longer Goofy Kicking Donald Duck-esque, but they exhibit the same Republican bias of the previous map.

Trying to do the same thing to get a different or the same result?
Trying to do the same thing to get a different or the same result?

For the purposes of design, I probably would have dropped the “PA-” labels, as they are redundant since the whole plot examines Pennsylvania congressional districts. I think that, perhaps with a marker, and maybe a line of no-change would go a bit further in more clearly showing how the ultimately rejected map was nearly identical to its previous incarnation.

Credit for the map borders goes to the Pennsylvania state legislature, the version here to the Washington Post Wonkblog. All Wonkblog for the scatterplot.

Gerrymandering Pennsylvania Followup

Remember how last week I wrote about gerrymandering in Pennsylvania? It was as the State Supreme Court was about to hear a case involving the partisan redistricting in 2011, widely perceived as one of the most egregious examples of gerrymandering in the nation. Well yesterday afternoon the State Supreme Court ruled that yes, Virginia, Pennsylvania was egregiously gerrymandered and the court ordered the state government to redraw the maps ahead of the 2018 midterms.

One of the worst offenders is the state’s 7th district. And if we go back a few years in time, the Washington Post had a nice piece that showed the (d)evolution of said district into the weird abstract art it is today.

The changing shape of Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District
The changing shape of Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District

Credit for the piece goes to the Washington Post graphics department.

Gerrymandering Pennsylvania

Here in Pennsylvania this week, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments on the legality of congressional districts drawn by Republicans in 2010. The state is rather evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, e.g. Donald Trump won by less than one percentage point or less than 45,000 votes. But 13 of its 18 congressional districts are represented by Republicans, roughly 72%.

This graphic is from the New York Times Upshot and it opens a piece that explores gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. The graphic presents the map today as well as a nonpartisan map and an “extreme” gerrymander. The thing most noticeable to me was that even with the nonpartisan geography, the Democrats are still below what they might expect for a near 50-50 split. Why? One need only look at Philadelphia and Pittsburgh where, using the Times’ language, the Democrats “waste” votes with enormous margins, leaving the suburban and rural parts of the state open for Republican gains.

Three different ways of drawing Pennsylvania's congressional districts
Three different ways of drawing Pennsylvania’s congressional districts

Credit for the piece goes to Quoctrung Bui and Nate Cohn.

Energy Production in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania was the country’s first state to operate a nuclear power plant for electricity generation and is today the second-largest nuclear-generated electricity state after Illinois. But in recent years the triple threat of the Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale natural gas boom, wind power subsidies, and solar power subsidies have hit the state’s nuclear industry hard. Consequently the power company Exelon has announced plans to shutdown the generating station at Three Mile Island—yes, that Three Mile Island—in 2019 if Pennsylvania does not rescue the industry as have the states of Illinois and New York, each facing similar challenges.

I wanted to take a look at the electricity generated by nuclear power in Pennsylvania, but had to settle for energy produced. And while the data was only as recent as 2014, it did extend back to 1960 thereby dating back almost as far back as nuclear power in Pennsylvania—it began in 1957.

The subject has always been of interest to me and was the focus of one of my first data visualisation pieces back at university. And so while the data is not quite the same, nor over the same geographic area, it is interesting to see the spike since even 2008. (Worth noting that even in a coal state the long, slow decline of coal even before President Obama is self-evident.)

The rise of Marcellus Shale natural gas has been quick and dramatic
The rise of Marcellus Shale natural gas has been quick and dramatic

Unfortunately the EIA data came through a .pdf and not a more accessible data file so I spent most of my time recreating the data. Consequently, I had little time to do more than track these changes. But even still, I think you would agree the message is clear: natural gas has quickly disrupted the market. (Let’s again ignore the fact I could not plot renewable energy sources.)

Small disclaimer I suppose, I have always supported nuclear power as part of a non-carbon energy portfolio. But I also grew up within sight of and fascinated by the Limerick Generating Station steam clouds, so call me biased.

Credit for this graphic is mine.

How Similar Are Pennsylvania and Ohio?

At least politically.

According to this piece from FiveThirtyEight, maybe not as much as they used to be. From a data visualisation standpoint, what stuck out at me was this plot of correlations of how similar various states are. Basically, the closer to the number 1, the more similar, the closer to 0, the less.

Turns out they're not so close
Turns out they’re not so close

I might question the value of placing the numbers within the squares—see what I did there?—because the colours could be used with a legend to indicate the range of similarity. But if this were an interactive piece, it certainly could be done to reveal the number on tap or mouseover.

Anyway, it was interesting to see that among swing states, Pennsylvania is least like Georgia but most like Minnesota. The former, certainly. The latter, who would have guessed, don’t ya know.

Credit for the piece goes to the FiveThirtyEight graphics department.

Where Is Pennsyltucky?

So last week I mentioned Pennsyltucky in my blog post about Pennsylvania’s forthcoming importance in the election. And then on Friday I shared a humourous illustrated map of Pennsylvania that led into an article on Pennsyltucky. But where exactly is it?

Luckily for you, I spent a good chunk of my weekend trying to find some data on Pennsylvania and taking a look at it. You can see and read the results over on a separate page of mine.

Where is Pennsyltucky?
Where is Pennsyltucky?


You may remember my post from Wednesday talking about the likely importance of Pennsylvania in the forthcoming election. I referenced an article from Philadelphia Magazine, which opened with a great map of Pennsylvania. I find the map very much worth sharing, especially on a Friday. I love the island life.

Take note of the other island off to the east, it is another good one on which I have spent many a years of my life. But, yes, anything generally west of the straits is a very, very different experience.


Credit for the piece goes to Mario Zucca.