GIS, Elections, and Politics


Elections can be a prolonged and relatively costly process. Given the effects of costs and time, planning on where to spend resources becomes more paramount for candidates and news media that want to cover areas of greater voter interest. Results from previous elections also help to plan future campaigns. Academic research, in particular political geography, focuses on such topics that look at how voting patterns develop and why.

Geography of Financing Elections

Regarding financing elections, in the United States most of the attention has been given to major donors in election cycles. However, in a recent study it was found that small donors play a big role and their spatial proximity may indicate there are regional or social influences happening that create either peer-pressure or like-minded individuals living nearby that donate small amounts of money to candidates.[1]

How Redistricting Affects Political Donations

Interestingly, looking at maps of districts over time, where districts are often redrawn by state governments, another pattern emerges. In this case, GIS was used to show that campaign donors are more likely to come outside of a given district as districts are redrawn, particularly where the outsiders are against the incumbent. Within district supporters are often those who support the candidate.[2] This is partially because districting becomes politicized and donors with interests in redistricting contribute. Over time, data from election precinct results show that since the 1976 election, regions are becoming more polarized with how they vote. People are now far more likely, in each new election cycle, to live more closely to others who vote like them, showing that geographic factors are influencing voting behavior.[3]

Local spatial autocorrelation for percent Republican, presidential election 1976. Map of the Cincinnati metropolitan area from Kinsella et al., 2015.

Local spatial autocorrelation for percent Republican, presidential election 1976. Map of the Cincinnati metropolitan area from Kinsella et al., 2015.

Polling Locations Affect Voter Turnout

Placement of polling stations is also another important decision that needs to be made, as research has indicated that slight changes to the placement and distance of polling stations can have a major influence on voter turnout.[4] Candidates, therefore, have vested interest in the location of polling stations and their distribution. Geographic factors in general are now becoming more recognized as major factors in election cycles.


[1] For more on the geography of campaign donations, see:  Mitchell, Joshua L., Karen Sebold, Andrew Dowdle, Scott Limbocker, and Patrick A. Stewart. 2015. “The Political Geography of Campaign Contributions.” In The Political Geography of Campaign Finance, by Joshua L. Mitchell, Karen Sebold, Andrew Dowdle, Scott Limbocker, and Patrick A. Stewart, 1–27. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US.

[2] For more on redistricting and its effect on campaign contributions, see: Crespin, M., and B. Edwards. 2016. “Redistricting and Individual Contributions to Congressional Candidates.” Political Research Quarterly 69 (2): 220–32. doi:10.1177/1065912916634893.

[3] For more on geographic patterns on voting behavior, see:  Kinsella, Chad, Colleen McTague, and Kevin N. Raleigh. 2015. “Unmasking Geographic Polarization and Clustering: A Micro-Scalar Analysis of Partisan Voting Behavior.” Applied Geography 62 (August): 404–19.

[4] For more on the placement of polling stations, see:  Haspel, Moshe, and H. Gibbs Knotts. 2005. “Location, Location, Location: Precinct Placement and the Costs of Voting.” The Journal of Politics 67 (2): 560–73.

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