Interactive Website Reveals the History of Political Boundaries

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The “Electing the House of Representatives, 1840–2016” website offers the option of viewing a map (western half of the graphic) or a cartogram (eastern half of the graphic). Red and blue are not the only color options; moving the cursor back in time reveals, for example, the Whig Party, illustrated in orange.
The “Electing the House of Representatives, 1840–2016” website offers the option of viewing a map (western half of the graphic) or a cartogram (eastern half of the graphic). Red and blue are not the only color options; moving the cursor back in time reveals, for example, the Whig Party, illustrated in orange.

Experts at Virginia Tech and the University of Richmond have launched an online, interactive map that provides the most comprehensive view of U.S. House of Representative election results over nearly two centuries.

The website, “Electing the House of Representatives, 1840–2016,” provides scholars and citizens with an opportunity to explore patterns in America’s democratic landscape across time. Among those scholars are students of the project’s originator, LaDale Winling. They will have the opportunity to test their predictions during the 2018 midterm elections.

Winling’s students have been learning about the political history of their districts, including the social factors and population demographics that changed throughout the past century. After studying the science of forecasting and political analysis, they have compiled their own election predictions. They will spend the evening of Nov. 6 at an election watch party, seeing how the present compares to the past — and how well their predictions perform.

Winling, an associate professor in the Virginia Tech Department of History, brings humanistic training to the study of data use through digital technologies. His most recent project, compiled in collaboration with colleagues Robert Nelson and Justin Madron in the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond, is providing the tool his students need to make their forecasts.

“In ‘Electing the House,’ we’ve created an unprecedented research resource — an interactive, authoritative dataset,” Winling said. “We’re working with University Libraries at Virginia Tech as a repository for the data, which will benefit historians and scholars across the country.”

He also said the site is the most accurate, robust, and up-to-date set of election results in existence. Although there have been many efforts to accumulate election results, many of those are analog or stored in inaccessible archives. And some information sourced from newspaper accounts is incorrect because of misspellings, inaccurate candidate names, or faulty vote totals.

“Electing the House” involves digitally transforming archives. Beyond digitally scanned print sources or graphics, the website uses geographic information system technology to enable data to be captured, analyzed, and displayed based on shapefiles, a file format that stores data as geometric shapes within data attributes.

In the context of the website, these shapefiles allow viewers to visualize map boundaries.

“Those boundaries in digital form means you can see how districts have changed over time by decade,” Winling said. “Redistricting happens after each census, as states gain or lose political seats. You can see the effects of redistricting — including political landscapes — over time in a way never before possible.”

CityLab, an online publication of The Atlantic, recently termed the project “deliciously wonky.”

LaDale Winling
LaDale Winling first conceived of the “Electing the House of Representatives” project while in graduate school.

Winling said the inspiration for the project came from his desire to teach using maps, which provide a deeper understanding of how the federal government works with its three branches, along with the election process and how voter demographics can create landslide elections.

“We always show Electoral College maps and talk about the presidency,” he said. “But Congress is a branch of government, too. I’d long wished we had a way to map congressional elections the way we do for presidential elections.”

And now he has. His next audacious goal is to add U.S. Senate election data.

The site is one of a trio of big ideas Winling had while in graduate school at the University of Michigan. He accomplished all three during the past three years at Virginia Tech. His first project, “Mapping Inequality,” a digital archive he compiled also in collaboration with his Digital Scholarship Lab colleagues at the University of Richmond, dealt with the effects of historic redlining practices. He followed this in 2017 with the publishing of a book, “Building the Ivory Tower.”

With “Electing the House,” Winling incorporated help from current Virginia Tech students, including Jennalee Beazley, an international studies, Spanish, and economics major; Celia Davies-Tucker, now majoring in liberal arts; and history master’s students L. T. Wilkerson Jr. and Nick Bolin.

Virginia Tech alumni who contributed to the project included Carmen Bolt (History ’14, M.A., History ’16); Caitlin Brown (History ’14, M.A.Ed. ’16); Alexandra Dowrey (M.A., History ’14); Victoria Fowler (History ’13); Sarah Rouzer (Political Science and Business, Economics ’15); Rachel Snyder (History and Agricultural and Applied Economics ’16); Camryn Sorg (International Studies and Environmental Policy and Planning ’14); Matthew Vaughan (Geography ’14); and Rebecca Williams (History ’15, M.A., History ’17).

The College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, the Department of History, and the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies helped fund this project with grants for research and data work.

Written by Leslie King