Project Reviews

Voting America: United States Politics, 1840-2008
Created and maintained by Andrew J. Torget at the University of Richmond and others at the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond

Voting America: United States Politics, 1840-2008, examines presidential elections in the United States, taking nearly full advantage of the strengths of the digital medium. Using a variety of cinematic and interactive maps, Voting America attempts to uncover trends in voting and politics with visualizations of election data. While including the state level results, Voting America looks beyond the Electoral College, even arguing that a state view can give a misleading impression of only red states and blue states. However, this project does not simply provide scripted analysis. Interactive features allow and encourage further exploration of the election data

Among the trends the project reveals in its analysis and commentary section, two are most prominent. The first is the regionalist nature of politics. Several visualizations uncover that before the Civil War politics dealt with national issues that appealed to voters in every region. However, at and after the Civil War, politics became sharply divided regionally until last twenty-five years during which the national presence of both parties has again emerged with voters of all colors in every region of the nation. A second prominent trend explored in the analysis and commentary section centers on changing party allegiances, particularly in the South. Several of the commentators focus on key events that helped shift alliances over time, including the New Deal and several important civil rights measures.

To explain and explore these trends, Voting America relies on visualizations of voting data from presidential elections. Looking at the information on state, county, and individual level, Voting America provides visualizations of votes for Democratic, Republican/Whig, and third party candidates, margins of victory, voter turnouts, and white and African American populations. The resulting maps can be explored cinematically by election or data type and interactively through Google Maps, Google Earth, or Voting America itself.

Though limited to more recent elections, the interactive features provide a deeper look into presidential elections than the cinematic maps. The cinematic maps show all the visualizations for a given presidential election, revealing the complexities underneath the electoral results, or focus on one type of data, for example votes cast for third parties, showing the changes over time from election to election. Like Voting America's cinematic maps, its interactive features complicate common understandings of elections, revealing the competitiveness of seemingly solid red or blue counties and states. The Google Maps and Google Earth features combine state and county level voting data with other valuable background information like income, age and race/ethnicity statistics. These features also provide data on Alaska and Hawaii, a serious omission from the project's other visualizations. The project's own interactive feature, Interactive America, allows the user to create her or his own map by layering visualizations of party, population, and other data. However, Interactive America is memory intensive and can run very slowly on some computers.

Voting America nicely balances its interactive features with expert guided analysis and commentary. In the map overview section, Andrew J. Torget provides quick analysis and shows how to interpret several types of cinematic maps. In the expert analysis section, different scholars, including project's consulting editor, Edward L. Ayers, use the visualizations to give short presentations analyzing various topics ranging from the impact of the re-enfranchisement of African Americans to voting around the Civil War.

While anyone would benefit from viewing and exploring the dynamic visualizations, one of the more effective uses would be in the classroom. Likely most beneficial to high school or undergraduate students, the analysis sections provide a valuable resource to illuminate the impact of events on politics or give a quick overview of political history. The interactive features and cinematic maps also provide a useful visual tool to any lecturer.

Voting America utilizes its digital nature well in its interactive, cinematic, and analytical sections. However, the short essay on the history of political maps is strangely archaic. The essay relies on text and pictures in a book-like format that employs page-by-page navigation only allowing forward and backward movement. Although the essay could better use its digital format, it is a rather small part of the project when compared to the cinematic and interactive maps.

The most problematic aspect of Voting America is the title, specifically the date range, 1840-2008. This date range is disappointing because the project does not actually include any data from the 2008 election. However, the expert analysis clearly shows the project was developed before the 2008 election was decided, as some of the commentators discuss the election in the future tense. Although interesting, the commentary on the 2008 election is simply outdated in 2009.

The role of the 2008 election in this project brings up larger questions facing the digital humanities. Once a project is put online is it "published?" Are authors obligated to update their projects if their analysis is outdated? Certainly, one of digital scholarship's greatest advantages is the ability to make changes without the hassle of printing completely new volumes. However, scholars are not required to continue working on a digital project forever. Although ideally Voting America would add new data and expert commentary every four years, it seems the project is being scaled back, as the title on the Digital Scholarship Lab's website, American Past, reads Voting America: United States Politics, 1840-2004. However, even without the addition of future elections, Voting America is an innovative and insightful examination of presidential elections.

Brian Sarnacki
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: December 2009