2068: Election Night

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Election Night
"Even the blind—those who are anxious to hear, but are not able to see—will be taken care of. Immense megaphones have been constructed and will be in use at The Tribune office and in the Coliseum. The one at the Coliseum will be operated by a gentleman who draws $60 a week from Barnum & Bailey's circus for the use of his voice."
Title text: "Even the blind—those who are anxious to hear, but are not able to see—will be taken care of. Immense megaphones have been constructed and will be in use at The Tribune office and in the Coliseum. The one at the Coliseum will be operated by a gentleman who draws $60 a week from Barnum & Bailey's circus for the use of his voice."


This is the third comic in a row that deals with elections in the United States; the trio has been published in the week before the US midterm elections held on November 6, 2018 and it compares media coverage on election results in 1896 and 2018. During this time the Header text of xkcd was also changed three times, including on the release days of both this and the previous comic, to help people go and vote. See more in the trivia section.

While elections and voting have been a public staple for generations, election coverage by the media can result in voter fatigue. While voter fatigue is considered a major criticism of things like first past the post voting systems, media outlets will also contribute.

The time traveler from 1896, wearing a top hat (the typical hat used at that time), presents Megan and Cueball a method how the latest news --over the night-- is published to the public. No broadcasting television or even radio existed then and most newspapers, reaching the readers on the next morning, were printed in the evening before the election results were certain. For the election referenced in this clipping, Republican candidate William McKinley (assigned the color Blue) won in a close race against Democrat-Populist candidate William J. Bryan (assigned the color Red).

Here, Randall is taking a unique opportunity to point out that unlike our recollection of history (which is usually modified by the misinformation effect, where we perceive the past as being easier and find a source to blame for the election night jitters) that in fact, in the past, a bombardment of fireworks every hour was used to convey the hour-by-hour play of the election night, a significantly more jarring effect that couldn't even be turned off. We have progressed, in some ways, to a more opt-in system, rather than the opt-out system of the past, where you had to leave Chicago to avoid the news.

The part about the "jiggling needle" is likely a reference to the New York Times' 2016 presidential election results webpage. It displayed a "needle" representing a live election night forecast of the results of the presidential election between then-candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, jiggling to reflect uncertainty. The position of the needle was initially set based on pre-election polls, pointing heavily toward Hillary Clinton, but as election results from around the country -- and from individual counties within states -- started coming in it changed to reflect those results. In the 2018 midterm elections, the needle was once again used.

The title text explains that in 1896 even blind people were taken care of, as enormous megaphones were installed to convey the news equally unavoidably to those who couldn't (or didn't want to) see the color bombs. This is in fact true but was intended for those in the Coliseum, not all of Chicago.


[Megan and Cueball face each other while talking on the left of the panel]
Megan: Ugh, I'm just going to hide out for election night. We'll know the results the next day anyway. The drama is so unnecessary.
Cueball: Yeah. The internet and the 24-hour news have turned elections into a continuous, inescapable media onslaught.
[A man in a top hat appears on the right side of the panel with a "Poof"]
[Panel with just the man in a top hat, holding a newspaper]
Man in a top hat: Hi! I'm a time traveler from 1896. Let me tell you about our election night coverage.
Man in a top hat: *Ahem*
Man in a top hat: From the Chicago Tribune
[Zoom in on the head of the man in a top hat]
Man in a top hat: "Once every hour from the roof of the Great Northern Hotel a series of bombs, which will ascend for several thousand feet, will be fired. Two colors will be used, blue and red."
Man in a top hat: "Blue to indicate McKinley's election, red to indicate Bryan's election."
Man in a top hat: "The bombardment of the skies will commence at 7 o'clock and will be repeated hourly."
[Grey citation]: Chicago Tribune, Oct 30th & Nov 1st, 1896
[Megan and Cueball on the left looking at the man in the top hat on the right]
Megan: Yeah, well, we have a needle, though.
Man in a top hat: A needle.
Megan: It jiggles!
Man in a top hat: Sounds awful.
Cueball: Listen, you had to be there.


  • The character with the large black top hat is wearing a typical hat worn by wealthy men in the late 19th and early 20th century and should not be mixed up with Black Hat...
    • Though the fact that he appears from nowhere just to tell total strangers why they're wrong IS somewhat suspect - he could be one of Black Hat's ancestors.
  • The equivalent to the 'needle', in the UK, is the 'Swingometer', which has long been used to demonstrate the current predictions (or the potential, for example, to have small changes making large differences) for the outcome of an ongoing election.

Election related header texts[edit]

  • On election day the Header text changed once more to help people to vote. This time including an entire comic with links on what to do to vote and nudging people to go nudge family and friends to go voting.
    • It was the third time up to the election that Randall changed the Header text on that account.
      • The first time was about two weeks before the election, on 2018-10-22, when 2061: Tectonics Game was up on the front page. Here a link was given on how to register for voting.
      • Second time was the Friday before the election, on 2018-11-02, four days before the election. On that day the comic 2067: Challengers tried to help people decide who to vote for. A second link was added to the first helping people to know what was on their local voting ballot. Both these links were also present in the election day header text.
    • After election day the header text returned to the standard: xkcd updates every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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This is an early example of using red and blue to denote candidates and parties. Here, McKinley (R) gets blue and Bryan (D) red; it wasn't standardized on blue for Democrats and red for Republicans until after the 2000 election. NBC News having used red/R and blue/D that year, Tom Brokaw was the first to speak extensively of "red states" and "blue states" elevating that to political meme status and leading to standardization. 14:36, 5 November 2018 (UTC)

I was just going to mention the hat :) 14:57, 5 November 2018 (UTC)

I distinctly remember the reporting during the 1980 election (Reagan vs. Carter) that the TV news used blue for Republicans and red for Democrats. I don't know why they later switched, but I have always assumed that Democrats got offended by the use of red (the color of the USSR's flag and many other communist organizations) for their party. Shamino (talk) 15:19, 5 November 2018 (UTC)

Beyond having one party being red and the other blue, there was no consistent color-coding scheme for the two major parties either from election to election or between news agencies prior to 2000. Both parties still officially list red, white, and blue as their colors. 15:24, 5 November 2018 (UTC)
There's a long history about red and blue states, all of which comes directly from the media reporting the different parties. It's interesting to note that in Europe, the liberal parties are red and the conservative parties are blue (opposite of the US), and the fact that red is the color of the USSR has nothing to do with the Democrats "not wanting to be red," they didn't choose the colors. Zachweix (talk) 16:51, 5 November 2018 (UTC)
Actually liberal parties tend to be in the yellow/orange part of the spectrum (see LibDems in the UK or FDP in Germany), red is for parties with more (historical) socialist leanings (Labour, SDP). 19:25, 5 November 2018 (UTC)
Rather most liberal parties in Europe in the last decades moved on the political right of Europe's conservative parties, emphasizing an immigrant-critical, corporate-friendly program over civil liberties. So 'liberals' has another ring to Europeans than to US-Americans. Sebastian -- 18:20, 6 November 2018 (UTC)
European politics, unlike US politics, is multidimensional. Erkinalp (talk) 16:59, 5 November 2018 (UTC)
No doubt, Europe is a beautiful, utopian paradise; and the U.S. is a disgusting, dystopian, backwards, hellhole. 16:41, 26 August 2020 (UTC)
Whoa there. Speaking as an American, Erkin is right. We have two parties. One dimension, left or right. There are plenty more established parties in Europe, making it -- you guessed it -- multidimensional. While their comment was indeed mostly unprompted, I think we might be a little touchy here. I am curious, though, as to why you chose to (I'm assuming sarcastically) describe the US as "a disgusting, dystopian, backwards, hellhole" in August 2020? Surely you see the irony? BlackHat (talk) 06:55, 28 February 2021 (UTC)
IIRC, blue was used for incumbents on some stations, red for challengers, and in 2000, blue stuck as the color of the democratic party, (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
It seems to have been chosen pretty much arbitrarily. As much as I follow politics, I never heard of any clear association where the Democrats were blue and Republicans red -- or vice versa -- until after election night in 2000. Before then, there was no well-known standard as to which party would get which color on a map. The standard colors we have now only stuck based on the coverage from election night (and afterward) in 2000. -- 17:26, 5 November 2018 (UTC)

God I feel awful for the Civil war vets with PTSD who decided to reside in Chicago. 17:05, 5 November 2018 (UTC)

What is the 'Needle' referring to? 17:46, 5 November 2018 (UTC)

The Traumatic Needle can be found here... https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2018/11/the-new-york-times-election-needle-is-back-with-a-few-new-safety-features (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
MSNBC also had a needle in their election coverage Tuesday night that jiggled. It indicated the likelihood of the House of Representatives going Democrat or staying Republican. It could point to Likely Democrat, Leaning Democrat, Leaning Republican, and Likely Republican. When I first turned in, the percentage was 50% of it turning Democrat and thus the needle was pointed to Leaning Democrat. Later the percentage increased to 60%, then %70, and then jumped to 90% and 95% as the needle moved into the Likely Democrat section. --Tcrosley (talk) 17:08, 9 November 2018 (UTC)

I was reading this, expecting the last page (or the title text) to have someone commenting that lecturing to modern people about how things were in the past is a pretty trivial or bizarre waste of something as momentous as time travel; and top hat guy to reply that he didn't come to bring them a message, he's just avoiding the fireworks because he's fed up of the modern election-night media circus. -- Angel (talk) 17:50, 5 November 2018 (UTC)

What would you do if you could travel anywhere in the future? I'd be worried about my immune system not being adapted to whatever the common flora happen to be. 19:27, 14 November 2018 (UTC)

Does anyone have a source for the 1896 reporting via fireworks referred to here? I've done a few Google searches, but so far haven't found anything. Historic issues of the Chicago Tribune is behind a paywall, so I can't go look there directly. Shamino (talk) 18:40, 5 November 2018 (UTC)

I assume Randall made this up? 18:49, 5 November 2018 (UTC)
Telling from this snippet, it seems legit. -- 18:54, 5 November 2018 (UTC)
It is legit, scroll through the first result here:[1]. (Update: I have no idea how to format this properly, somebody that knows how please fix this and feel free to remove this message) -- 21:56, 5 November 2018 (UTC)
I fixed your problem, just start your comment at the beginning of a line. --Dgbrt (talk) 22:31, 5 November 2018 (UTC)
Thanks for the link. Unfortunately, it is blocked by the Tribune's paywall. Shamino (talk) 22:36, 5 November 2018 (UTC)
Here's the transcription of that article (I have access through my ancestry account): "..."-- 14:05, 6 November 2018 (UTC)
Copyright problems. There is a paywall and we don't want to pay for it. Please explain the content with your own words or present a free source which may be possible because it's more than 100 years old. --Dgbrt (talk) 22:14, 6 November 2018 (UTC)
If it's transcription of 120 years old article, it's public domain no matter where did you copied it from. Don't let the fact that publishers wants you to pay even for public domain articles confuse you. Also, note that it's still visible in wiki history. -- Hkmaly (talk) 02:21, 7 November 2018 (UTC)
You misunderstand: Present a free source that's not behind the Tribune's paywall, or just don't mention it because the original isn't protected anymore. That paywall could ask us for paying and I don't want that. I know I'm nitpicking but lawyers are too. And of course hidden sources are always a problem because it can't be verified. --Dgbrt (talk) 19:55, 7 November 2018 (UTC)
Is the hovertext quote legit, too? –P1h3r1e3d13 (talk) 23:15, 5 November 2018 (UTC)
That's what I'd like to know.- 04:13, 7 November 2018 (UTC)
According to the dropbox link to a Tribune article below, it is legit. The dropbox article doesn't quite match the qoutes from the comic, probably a different article, but it does mention the megaphones and the Barnum and Bailey guy: "Foghorn Lou" Graham. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

There needs to be a reference to "Dewey Defeats Truman" in the explanation. When Megan says they will get the election results the next day this would not have been the correct reults. The Chicago Daily Tribune published a newspaper with the headline "Dewey Defeats Truman" but the newspaper article was wrong. Because of publishing deadlines they published what they thought was correct but more results came in later and Truman won. With the internet and 24 hour news stations this problem does not exist. Also perhaps there could be a reference to Florida's "hanging chad" which caused caused the election results to be decided in the coarts and not overnight. Punchcard (talk) 15:20, 6 November 2018 (UTC)

Papal conclave

No one else sees parallels to the smoke colors after a papal conclave? It's white and black there, but the principle is the same (no telecommunication, ...) --Dgbrt (talk) 20:15, 5 November 2018 (UTC)

Papal conclave's been copied a number of times - see baby gender declaration via pink/blue smoke and newspapers in the UK put out red or blue smoke depending on which political party they're propagandising for. Kev (talk) 01:49, 7 November 2018 (UTC)

Is the needle a relative of the good old swingometer. The BBc's favoured method of showing predicted General Election results based on polling and a uniform swing. 00:06, 6 November 2018 (UTC)

As depicted by Monty Python? Shamino (talk) 13:42, 6 November 2018 (UTC)
Think Top Hat Guy is going to become a new character? (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
I was about to ask the same thing: MORE TOP HAT GUY please Kev (talk) 01:49, 7 November 2018 (UTC)


Is the newspaper clipping quoted real? Does anyone have a link to a scan of it? Would be good to know if it's true history or just a joke. - 04:11, 7 November 2018 (UTC)

Totally real. Chicago Tribune, 1 Nov 1896, pp29-30 Mbklein (talk) 07:41, 7 November 2018 (UTC)