By Tricia Escobedo, CNN
CNN’s John King has become synonymous with the “Magic Wall,” a touchscreen displaying a vast array of up-to-date voting data on election night. His incredibly quick breakdown of this data and breadth of knowledge across the political spectrum has captured the attention of numerous news outlets, social media fans, and even late-night hosts.
But behind the camera is a whole team of experts who create the technical magic that King and other correspondents present on live television.
We spoke with the producers and designers who upload the data and create the graphics that power the Magic Wall to find out how the technology has evolved over the past election cycles – and what new features we can expect to see during the mid-term. -session 2022.
Here is part of our conversation, edited for length and clarity:
The Magic Wall debuted in 2008. What was that first like and how has the technology evolved since then?
David Reisner, Senior Producer: That was before people had iPhones in their pockets, right? So it was unheard of technology at the time, coupled with trying to program this very, very dense, data-heavy visual storytelling that we’ve known for years – but created in such a way that it was interactive and an extension of extensive political knowledge of John King at the time. So the question was how to break down the dumping ground of all the knowledge he has? He was able to call a primary in Cuyahoga County in the 80s like that (clichés), now we can just click on it and show the world how visually compelling it is.
John Murphy, Senior Producer: An example would be what we call replay mode. Prior to 2020, the wall only displayed the latest vote count. In 2020, between the pandemic and the order in which the votes were counted, we knew that the results would take longer than usual and that states could go from red to blue or vice versa depending on whether the states were counting mail-in ballots or in-person ballots first. . This created the so-called blue mirages and red mirages. We needed a way for the wall to go back 24 hours or 48 hours to show how accounts had changed and explain why that had happened – so we built a system in about four weeks to do just that.
Pallavi Reddy, Senior Director: The challenge is to make sure we keep up with today’s storylines and politics. But at the same time, there’s a simplicity to it. The Magic Wall does not change; it will always show you election data and facts. And that’s kind of what makes it a really powerful part of what we use on election night. Whatever kind of noise is going on in the political sphere, it is always about election data and where it is now and how to inform our viewers using that exact data and nothing else.
How can John King access so much historical voting data in the Magic Wall?
Billy Holbert, Senior Producer: We always like to say that if John King was a jazz player, this is his instrument. We are creating this tool to keep up with it and be one step ahead – that is always our challenge. So the presidential data in the tool itself dates back to 1980. We can show you where and how people voted for Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, down to the county level. In 2014, all of this had to be converted and uploaded manually. Pallavi and I spent quite a bit of time on this, going through carpal tunnel.
Caroline Tounget, producer: We hit just about every element of what this magic wall can do – and maybe even some – so we know we’ve done everything John can do before it happens to him in front of the cameras.
What else, besides current and past vote counts, does the Magic Wall display?
Tounget: There are things called “demographic layers” that we placed in the magic wall in the 2020 election to show not only the demographics – like where the black or Hispanic voting population might be – but also things like where the concentrations of Covid are really high and how that data has progressed over the months.
Is there anything new we should expect to see on Tuesday?
Lauren Holt, Producer: One big thing that we spent a lot of time on this year is that there’s a brand new recut map (from Congress) because the census went through a recount. So one cool new feature that will be great in this year of redistricting is our congressional district by county tool. In each house race and each district, John (King) will be able to log in and then break it down even further into smaller pieces – which is at the county level.
Unlike any other year where you would only see one color representing the leading candidate, you will now be able to see a breakdown by county of who is leading in which county. This gives a much more contextual preview of the results rather than just the top two row numbers.
How would you like to evolve Magic Wall technology in the future?
Holt: There are so many stories embedded in the data, and the Magic Wall’s capabilities can be applied outside of elections and politics, whether related to climate or the economy. The world runs a lot on data. I think a lot of people realized this in 2020 when Covid happened and everyone suddenly became aware of the CDC data visualization dashboard.
Red : I’d like to get this into the hands of our viewers so they can watch John King or Phil Mattingly on election night at the Magic Wall and also get to dig deeper into the storylines that matter to them as viewers. You can pick up this information yourself and be your own John King at home.
It is not touch screen technology. This is data visualization. The more visualizations you can apply to the data, the better our reports will be, the better our analysis of the data, the better the context we can give our viewers. And then the more we can get this into the hands of our audience – digital or TV or whatever – the better it is for all of us.
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