Today is election day in the United States. If you watch political coverage, tonight you’ll probably see a lot of maps on a lot of video screens with states, counties or voting districts colored red and blue. We all know what these colors mean. “Red states” (Republican-leaning states) and “blue states” (Democratic-leaning states) have entered our political lexicon and popular culture. If you talk about being a “blue voter in a red state” (or vice-versa), or even a “purple state,” everybody knows what you mean. This is part of our modern world.

But it wasn’t always so. A few years back I found, and played with a friend, an old board game called “Mr. President,” where each player picks candidates, campaigns and casts ballots, in the form of cards, in a hypothetical Presidential election. I noticed one funny thing: the ballot cards for Republicans were blue and the ones for Democrats were red. The game was manufactured in 1971. In a book, written by a member of the Carter administration, I also found a reference to the election of 1980, a Republican landslide, where the author laments seeing an election map that is a “sea of Republican blue.” So it’s clear that what are now red states were once blue, and vice-versa. When did this shift happen, and why?

Election night, 1980. Note the map (you see it at 0:24) which indicates Republican states are blue, Democratic states red.

The answer surprised me. It happened very recently, in the year 2000, and it was done, predictably, by TV news networks. The first light-up election map of the USA seems to have been created for John Chancellor, NBC anchorman, for the 1976 Presidential election. The tradition at that time seems to have been to color Democratic states red, after the custom in Europe to assign red to left-leaning parties. Certainly in 1980 the major networks’ election maps used red for Democrats and blue for Republicans–consistent with what I read in the Carter memoir. After that it gets murkier. Networks split in the 1980s, some using red-R blue-D, others using the reverse. By 1996 the networks’ treatment was all over the place. Some used red-R, some used blue-R, and some switched from year to year. There was no particular need for consistency.

Then came the election of 2000. This was the most unusual election in American history in modern times, and it was that way even before the vote was disputed in Florida. The vote was extremely close, and the country seemed very undecided between George W. Bush and Al Gore. After Election Night, when news outlets were not able to call the election for one candidate or the other–and particularly when they realized the election was going to continue to be a very big story for weeks or perhaps months to come–suddenly the inconsistency that had reigned before was no longer acceptable. If you think about it, this makes sense. The whole story of the 2000 election was about those 27 electoral votes in Florida and who got them. That story didn’t make sense without looking at the electoral map. To avoid confusing viewers, the news channels quickly standardized their map practices, and somehow red became Republican. Tim Russert seems to have coined the phrase “red states” and “blue states.” It has stuck ever since.

Interestingly, the two main political parties had virtually no input as to the selection of the color scheme. No Republican operative called up CNN in the fall of 2000 and said, “We’d like to be red, please,” or the reverse. The selection seems to have been pretty random. CNN happened to be coloring Republican states red that year, and as they were the leader of the pack, the other networks followed suit. If CNN happened to be coloring Republican states blue, as seems to have been more common pre-1990s, the scheme might have crystallized in reverse.

Election night, 2012. Now note that Republican states are red and Democratic states blue.

The red state/blue state paradigm is ubiquitous now, but it may have done us more harm than good. The tendency to classify states by color–which media outlets can’t resist the impulse to do, because it looks so pretty on a map and it’s easy to understand–glosses over the political differences within states. For example, the state I live in, Oregon, is classified as a “blue state,” but in fact most districts in the state consistently vote Republican. It only votes Democratic as a whole because a lot of Democrats live in Portland, Salem and Eugene. Similarly, there are vast numbers of Democrats in Texas, and in fact Texas was solidly Democratic until the 1980s. But because there are more Republicans in outlying areas now, Texas is thought of as a red state. The red state/blue state model glosses over Republicans in New York City, Democrats in Jackson, Mississippi, and ignores independents everywhere. It’s just not a very accurate depiction of reality.

Can we get away from the red state/blue state divide? I think we can, but it will require a shift in the way the media views American politics. A “horse race” paradigm, where Democrats and Republicans are in diametric competition on all issues, all the time, perpetuates the red/blue dichotomy. Real reporting on more local issues, rather than seeing every political occurrence through the lens of national and particularly Presidential politics, is also necessary. Unfortunately journalism of any kind, especially political journalism, is becoming more and more surface-level, with press outlets being wholesale and uncritical disseminators of information rather than investigators of the truth. Thus, breaking out of the red/blue state map may be a longshot. But journalism is changing, and so is politics; I do predict that someday the maps will look very different.