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- Geographical Effects on Electoral Behavior
- The Salience of the Electoral System
- Future Research
The electoral geography hypothesis is that electoral behavior is related to place—neighborhood, community, town or city, region, or country—and cannot entirely be explained by considering individual voters, and nonvoters, as possessing characteristics on an atomized and isolated basis. It claims that geographical and contextual effects are significant and that the process of day-to-day personal communication and social interaction in the community—or in a variety of communities— influences voting patterns. As explained by John Agnew (2002), localities are the arena for political socialization and produce the settings for much interpersonal social interaction. The general tensions within society are actualized within localities, influencing the relative weight and various meanings attached to social divisions and hence the appeal of different ideologies—which are not the same everywhere. Political movements then use geography in their search for electoral and other support, using claims relating to localities, regions, and so forth to mobilize that support.
Geographical Effects on Electoral Behavior
There is a long history of debate about whether such geographical effects on electoral behavior do in fact exist. Opponents of the electoral geography hypothesis have contended that once all the variables affecting individual electoral behavior have been fully identified and properly specified, there is no role for geographical and contextual variables to have any independent effect. Furthermore, research on the existence and nature of neighborhood effects depends on the existence of usable neighborhood data: As a result, it is not necessarily easy to investigate the various levels at which they may exist.
Neighborhood effects in voting patterns were first demonstrated in 1937 in Sweden by Herbert Tingsten, who showed that the more working class the area, the more likely the working-class voter was to cast a socialist vote. Much subsequent work in this area has focused on the United States and the United Kingdom, perhaps because the political effects of the links between electoral geography and political representation are more immediately evident under majoritarian electoral systems. Support for the electoral geography hypothesis has been more extensively demonstrated in the work in the UK, over many years, of Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie, demonstrating that, in the words of William Miller (1977), “people who talk together vote together.” These effects are not, however, uniform. They are, for example, more powerful in “working-class” neighborhoods than in “middle-class” neighborhoods, probably because the social circles of salaried workers are likely to be wider and more geographically varied than those of residents of poorer neighborhoods.
The impact of neighborhood effects on patterns of political representation is affected not only by the formation and evolution of social communities but also by the geographical definition of electoral communities achieved by the delimitation of electoral boundaries. The legislation, which defines how delimitation and redistribution takes place; the independence or otherwise of the authority that undertakes it; and the attempts of political parties and movements to influence it in their favor are all relevant factors. It is not possible for redistribution to produce outcomes without a bias of some form. The inherence of geographic factors in redistribution is shown in the analysis of Bernard Grofman and others (1997), breaking down bias into three component parts: (1) bias resulting from malapportionment, (2) bias resulting from different levels of turnout, and (3) bias that results from the geographic distribution of party vote shares. Although requirements on a delimitation authority to control or eliminate malapportionment through a stipulation that the electorates of all seats be equal within a stated small tolerance level are now common, statutory exceptions exist for sparsely populated areas, for example, Norway and Western Australia. In South Australia, boundary revisions are also required to take into account the geography of party or grouping vote shares and ensure that the party or grouping with more than half the two-party preferred vote sees this reflected by an elected majority in the state legislative council.
The effect of demographic changes and boundary delimitation can be accentuated by party campaigning activity, as UK Liberals and later Liberal Democrats demonstrated through successes generated by intensive campaigning in individual localities in local elections from the 1970s onward. On a larger scale, the 1997 and subsequent general election victories of the UK Labour Party also owed much to the party’s efforts to “create its own geography,” in Johnston and Pattie’s words, through targeted geographical focus of its efforts linked to an overall increase in the effectiveness of the party machine. Electoral geography is not only determined by changing demographics and community formation and by the outcomes of boundary delimitation exercises but also by the response of political parties in targeting their resources, the intensity of campaigning, and promoting or implicitly accepting tactical voting. Furthermore, effective party management recognizes that changes in electoral geography can affect the motivation and activity of party organization and responds accordingly.
The Salience of the Electoral System
At a broader level, the overall electoral geography of a country and hence the dynamic not only of its electoral politics but of its political system as a whole are linked to the form of electoral system chosen. Cleavages can be accentuated or weakened by electoral system choice. Majoritarian systems usually have a strong inbuilt tendency to produce a seat bonus for the winning party, but there are occasions in practice where this does not happen. In Malawi in 1999, the three leading parties, United Democratic Front (UDF), Malawi Congress
Party (MCP), and Alliance for Democracy (AforD), received 47%, 34%, and 11% of the national vote, respectively, which converted into 48%, 34%, and 15% of the seats. However, 82% of the UDF seats were in the southern region, 82% of the MCP seats were in the central region, and 97% of the AforD seats were in the northern region— which inevitably produced a dynamic of regional cleavage in the parliament.
By contrast, Indonesia has used list proportional representation (with differences in detail) in the democratic elections of the reform era from 1999 onward. In a political climate where the maintenance of the unity of the state was both a domestic political and a societal imperative and a priority of the international community, this type of electoral system ensured that each of the major parties secured representation from across Indonesia. Probably as a consequence, political divisions since 1999 have hardly demonstrated a regional dimension. However, mapping of the leading party in each local authority area shows a clustering of party support in different parts of the country, which would almost certainly have led to party groups in the legislature with a strong regional origin and identity. Had this happened, the likely consequence would have been the emergence of regionalism as a much stronger cleavage at the national level, with probable significant negative effects on national unity and the process of democratic consolidation. It is not only the proportion of seats gained by each party that influences the way a political system works in practice, for the geographical distribution of the leadership and elected members can be just as significant.
While there no longer appears to be significant contest about the contribution of geographic effects to explain electoral behavior, there is still much scope for research into how they work. The study of electoral geography brings together political scientists and geographers, and there may be rich fields for future exploration both in the comparative study of electoral geographies and in the change of electoral geographies over time. Looking forward, it is a fair hypothesis that continuing changes in the way people form communities of different kinds will affect the working of the electoral geography hypothesis in practice. The spread of access to telecommunications and personal transport in many parts of the world has clearly affected the context of the evolution of communities. The growth of Internet-based social networking and the consequent advent of virtual communities may be expected also to generate new impacts on the way in which personal interaction leads to electoral decision.
- Agnew, J. A. (2002). Place and politics in modern Italy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Grofman, B., Koetzle, W., & Brunell, T. (1997). An integrated perspective on the three main sources of partisan bias. Electoral Studies, 16(4), 457-470.
- Johnston, R. J., & Pattie, C. (2006). Putting voters in their place. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Miller, W. (1977). Electoral dynamics in Britain since 1918. London: Macmillan.
- Tingsten, H. (1937). Political behaviour: Studies in election statistics. London: PS King.