A Precinct-by-Precinct Journey to the Stars

As an amateur astronomer, I’m quite familiar with population density, one of the problems with any nationwide depiction of the vote. Islands of blue appear overwhelmed by a sea of red. In the hunt for deep sky objects, I have to travel far away from city lights, suburban lights, even exurban lights to enjoy a light pollution free sky:


Areas of high population has more lights, areas of low population, generally, less light. My home city of Rancho Cucamonga is in the grey zone on this chart (though parts of that are actually changing for the better), so I can enjoy nice lunar and planetary views, but if I want to go deeper out into space, I have to hit the gas. At far upper right, barely cut off on the chart, is Amboy, a virtually abandoned community currently owned by a grilled chicken chain, population five. Over one hundred miles from home, it is the darkest sky I can enjoy.

Since the full interactive had to be taken temporarily offline due to traffic crippling the map host, the static maps Ryne Rohla has made are beautiful, but the overwhelming red and deceptively tiny pockets of blue generated a reaction we were all expecting:

In general, the Democratic vote was concentrated in areas of higher population density, so yes, a lot of that red on the chart represents large tracts of land with few voters. Marcus Dillavou, a fan of the DDHQ, took NASA displaying the infernal bane of my existence- outdoor, unshielded lighting- and overlaid precinct data, to give a better sense of where people casting all these votes actually live:

But this high density Democratic, low density Republican general concept doesn’t always hold true. There are large nearly-empty Democratic precincts, and high-population, tiny Republican ones. It dawned on me that I drive through many of these places on my way out to enjoying an observing session, so I tracked my path using the neighborhood map this weekend on my trip to Amboy Crater National Natural Monument.
Home base: Rancho Cucamonga, California (population 171,386)

My neighborhood voted for Hillary Clinton by about twenty points, a higher margin than the city and county at large, but a lower one than statewide. My district covers a few cul de sacs, a condominium, and three large apartment complexes. In total, it cast over 1100 votes in the Presidential election. Surrounding neighborhoods of similar population broke differently: south of the 210 Freeway, some voted for Clinton, though by narrower margins, while others voted comfortably for Donald Trump. North and west of my block, Trump was the clear choice, and these precincts cast as many if not more votes than mine. They’re all roughly the same size here in area. As we hit the road, the correlation between precinct size and population is going to fray.
Driving through the Cajon Pass

Just a few miles out of town, traveling along the I-15 (highlighted in green), we enter the Cajon Pass, a gap in the San Bernardino Mountains that facilitates all of the traffic between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The main precinct in the town of Devore (#1), at the base of the pass, voted for Trump, and cast over 600 ballots. Just south of it, equally sized precincts #2 and #3 voted for Trump and Clinton, but each cast only twenty ballots.
The slightly larger precinct touching the southern corner of #1, labeled #4 here, is the northern edge of the City of San Bernardino. It voted for Clinton by ten points, and cast almost twice the ballots Devore did. Dark red precinct #5 cast only one ballot, and the bordering gigantic precinct #6, home to the mountain communities of Devore and Lytle Creek, cast only 338. As we’ve moved beyond the cores of the bedroom communities along the I-210, size and voter population have lost any real correlation.

The High Desert 

As we move bast the Cajon, we enter the High Desert communities of Hesperia, Victorville, and Apple Valley. Demographically mixed, with African-American, White, and Hispanic-dominated areas, these cities have exploded in population in the last two decades. Along the I-15 freeway, where many of the first tracts were constructed, precincts are roughly the same in size, cast similar number of votes, and the freeway itself serves as almost a dividing line: to the West, Clinton, to the East, Trump. Overall,  this region is one of the few pockets in Southern California with more than 300,000 people that vote for the President.
Further out, where there are still plenty of people, large cul-de-sacs have led to longer, wider precincts, but mostly with the same population found closer to the freeway. Most of the precincts in this region have the same voter population back in my home town, but this won’t last as we press further out and into the Mojave Desert.

Onward through Barstow

Still an active town for rail, particuarly the BNSF’s operations in Southern California, Barstow is the last major community I pass through on my journey to starry skies. With a population of just over 23,000, its less than a sixth as populated as my home city, and a third of Apple Valley’s, but it will look like a metropolis compared to where we are headed. The city voted barely for President Trump, with two elongated Democratic precincts and several Republican-but-less-strongly-leaning ones stretching out past the I-15 and I-40. Even from way out here, the light dome of Los Angeles (and, increasingly, Las Vegas) intrudes, and the lighting used in-town makes Barstow a poor place to really enjoy the stars. We needed to travel much further out to really enjoy the sky.

On our exit from Barstow, we pass a quirky precinct roughly the same size as ones we’ve driven through in the Cajon Pass, High Desert, and Barstow. Colored dark blue on the map at lower right, it cast exactly one vote- for Clinton.

The long drive through nowhere, and an astronomer’s paradise

Once you leave Barstow’s “metro area”, the first community you come to on I-40 is Newberry Springs. If you live in California and are familiar with Huell Howser, the cargo pants-sporting Tennessean who spent decades criss-crossing the state for KCET TV, you’re probably familiar with the town. Howser’s visit here:

is arguably the eight greatest minutes of public television ever shot. Newberry Springs boasts a population of 2,895, downright suburban compared to the next few towns, and its district cast just under 700 votes in the Presidential election, almost three-fourths of which went to President Trump. We’re now getting into very red- and very lightly populated- territory.

With Route 66 washed out beyond the city limits, we’ll have to hop on the 40 through several empty precincts before we exit and hop back on the mother road.

Exiting the Interstate for the last time

Ludlow, California (population 24) is a Dairy Queen, a Chevron Station, a hotel, a diner, and a plaque to cancelled atomic bomb testing. It’s downright crowded compared to our final destination, but it’s precinct cast only five votes in the Presidential election- four of them for Trump.

But it’s still not dark enough for our deep sky viewing.

An astronomer’s paradise lies within one of the reddest precincts in one of the bluest states

After a thirty minute (ok, more like a little over twenty minutes at 90mph) drive down Route 66, we reached the final stop on our journey this weekend: Amboy, California, population five.

Amboy is owned by Juan Pollo chicken guru Albert Okura (you can’t miss his bizarre advertising trucks and signs scattered across the landscape), and boasts a gas station that any travel geek will likely recognize:

Amboy is on the western end of an election precinct (circled) that covers an area larger than state of Rhode Island:

Here, in the literal middle of nowhere, rises an extinct volcano, Amboy Crater, now part of a National Natural Monument.

Thanks to the efforts of residents and the military in Twentynine Palms, the nearest “large” development about 45 miles South, only a small dome of light pollution appears on the horizon (the yellow-green glow in the shot below):

Brian Haeckel

Thanks to Amboy’s distance from Vegas, and the Marble Mountains, help shield visitors from that metropolis’ annoying light.

It also resides in one of the reddest areas of California: 18 people cast votes here for Donald Trump, one cast for Gary Johnson, and only one Clinton voter could be found in this zone larger than America’s smallest state. You couldn’t tell that from the bumper stickers in the parking lot, of course: an increasing number of Angelenos have trekked out here to climb the volcano and photograph the superbloom. There were more Clinton voters in the parking lot that Saturday at Amboy Crater than there were residing between Newberry Springs and Needles.

On my journey to wonderful skies, I drove through densely populated red precincts and densely populated blue ones. I’ve passed through small town Republican and Democratic districts, a sizable but empty Democratic one, and finally one massively red- and massively empty. But enough of all that political talk.

Once the sun set, my son and I were transfixed by the stars. With a mix of locals and visitors enjoying the view through the telescope, there was little time for electoral discussion.

Besides, you gotta be a real jerk to see all of this

Brian Haeckel

and still argue with someone down here about why they voted for X or Y.

Note: Brian Haeckel, an amateur astronomer from Apple Valley, joined us this past Saturday, and managed to snap the night sky images with a GoPro. What I like most about his pictures here is that they very closely mirror the real naked eye view of the stars from Amboy. If you make the trek out there on a moonless night, wonders await.