The folks at FiveThirtyEight were excited about the following dataviz they published last week two weeks ago, illustrating the progression of vote-counting by state. (link) That was indeed the unique and confusing feature of the 2020 Presidential election in the States. For those outside the U.S., what happened (by and large) was that many Americans, skewing Biden supporters, voted by mail before Election Day but their votes were sometimes counted after the same-day votes were tallied.
A number of us kept staring at these charts, hoping for a how-to-read-it explanation. Here is a zoom-in for the state of Michigan:
To save you the trouble, here is how.
The key is to fight your urge to look at the brown area. I know, it's pretty hard to ignore the biggest areas of every chart. But try to make them disappear.
Focus on the top edge of the chart. This line gives the total number of votes counted so far. In Michigan, by hour 12, about 2.4 million votes were counted, and by hour 72, 2.8 million votes were on the book. This line gives the sum of the two major parties' vote totals [since third parties got negligible votes in this election, I'm ignoring them so as to simplify the discussion].
Next, look at the red and blue areas. These represent the gap in the number of votes between the two parties' current vote totals. If the area is red, Trump was leading; if blue, Biden was leading. Each color flip represents a lead change. Suppress the urge to interpret red as the number or share of Trump votes.
What have we learned about the vote counting in Michigan?
Counting significantly slowed after the 12th hour. Trump raced to a lead on Election Day, and around hour 20, the race was dead even, and after that, Biden overtook Trump and never looked back. Throughout most of this period, the vote lead was small compared to the total votes cast although at the end, the Biden lead was noticeable.
If you insist on interpreting the brown area, it is equal to twice the vote total of the second-place candidate, so it really isn't something you want to look at.
Just for contrast, here is the chart for Iowa:
Trump led from beginning to end, with his lead widening slightly as more votes were counted.
As I was stewing over this chart, a ominous thought overcame me. Would a streamgraph work for this data? You don't hear much about streamgraphs here because I rarely favor them (see this long-ago post) but let's just try one and see.
(These streamgraphs were made in R using the streamgraph package. Post-processing was applied to customize the labeling.)
This chart conveys all the key points listed before. You can see how the gap evolved over time, the lead flips, which candidate was in the lead, and the total mass of votes counted at different times. The gap is shown in the middle.
I can't say I'm completely happy with the streamgraph - I hope readers don't care about the numbers because it's hard to evaluate a difference when it's split two ways on either side of the middle axis!
If you come up with a better idea, make sure to leave a comment.