Electoral Geography Research Paper

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Electoral geography provides a spatial perspective to the study of the organization, conduct, and outcome of elections, all of which are inherently geographical. It focuses on the nature of, and interactions among, four maps. There are two main input maps—the geography of votes for a party or candidate (itself in part a function of the geography of the social groups from which each draws its main support) is set within a geography of constituencies: their interactions produce the first output map—the geography of representation—that can be converted into a second output map, a geography of power.

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This study of spatial aspects of elections is a small subfield within geography. No synthesizing text has appeared since 1979 (Taylor and Johnston 1979), although the subject matter studied has expanded substantially since (Johnston et al. 1998). Its main concerns are with: spatial variations in the support for parties and candidates, and in the campaigning for that support; the processes by which territorially-defined electoral constituencies are defined within different electoral systems; the geographies of representation which result from the pattern of votes across constituencies; and the geography of political power—of ‘who gets what, where’ because of politically- and electorally-influenced decisions on the location of public goods and services.

1. The Geography Of Votes

The classic works on the geography of votes include several by Andre Siegfried, who pioneered geographie electorale. He drew cartographic correlations between patterns of party support and the physical, social, and economic landscapes, sophisticatedly linking environment to voting through agrarian systems, land ownership, and rural social stratification and tradition, demonstrating that social factors underpinning party support have environmental foundations. Support for parties in the Ardeche during the Third Republic (1871–1940) reflected variations not only in geology and relief, but also in agricultural activities and the distribution of industry: parties obtained their support in different sociospatial milieux (Siegfried 1949; see also Dogan 1967 and the volumes edited by Lacoste 1986, follow the Siegfried tradition).

Siegfried showed substantial continuity in the Ardeche’s geography of votes throughout the Third Republic, as did another seminal work (Key 1955). Consistent geographies of support reflect stable electoral cleavages, with parties sustained within the same milieux over sequences of elections. Those cleavages are broken occasionally, either temporarily, producing a deviating election from the normal sequence, or permanently, whereby one or more elections is critical in the realignment from one cleavage to another. Changed cleavage structures are reflected in changing geographies of support.

The concept of electoral cleavage was broadened in Lipset and Rokkan’s (1967) identification of those characterizing most European countries. Two—between subject and dominant cultures (the core-periphery cleavage) and between churches and secular interest groups (the church vs. state cleavage)— followed the national revolution from the seventeenth century onwards, whereas those between the primary and the secondary economy (the urban–rural or town–country cleavage) and employers and workers (the class cleavage)—were products of the industrial revolution. The class cleavage occurs in nearly all European countries but the others’ relative strength reflects local history and culture; understanding a country’s geography of votes involves mapping its cleavage structures and exploring how parties mobilise support in different social milieux and places.

Key’s theory underpinned studies of American electoral mosaics, notably Archer and Taylor’s (1981) detailed analysis of the changing geography of support for American Presidential candidates, which they related to the geography of the country’s political economy. Shelley et al. (1996) linked maps of support for presidential candidates and for parties at Congressional elections to the geographies of various interest groups and of policy outcomes (such as support for various policies in the House of Representatives from different parts of the country).

1.1 Local Variations Within Cleavage Structures

The cleavage model suggests that the geography of votes at an election can be ‘read-off’ from the geography of the cleavage structure(s): if the class cleavage dominates, for example, knowledge of each area’s class structure should successfully predict spatial variations in each party’s support. This was widely assumed in Great Britain: Butler and Stokes’ (1969, 1974) classic study identified considerable uniformity across the country in both voting at individual elections (though with some variations, such as differences in working-class voting between resort towns and mining areas) and interelection shifts in support between parties—the so-called ‘uniform swing.’

These assumptions were challenged by geographical work showing that the cleavage and uniform swing models could not account for changing geographies of support. People in the same class position voted differently in different parts of Great Britain (Johnston 1985) and interparty, interelection swings also varied spatially (Johnston 1983). Parties performed even better than the cleavage model suggested where their class base was strong; the geography of support was spatially more polarised than the geography of cleavages. (These findings were contested by some who believe that all spatial variations can be accounted for by the characteristics of individual voters: McAllister and Studlar 1992, Johnston and Pattie 1998).

One major reason for this polarization has been identified in geographical studies. As class dealignment advanced after 1960 and cleavages became less deep-seated in British culture, short-term economic factors increasingly influenced voting decisions. American work on ‘economic voting’ (Lewis-Beck 1988) shows people influenced by their perceptions of the economic situation: they reward governments which deliver prosperity, and punish those which do not. Such retrospective voting may be either egocentric (people who are prospering individually vote to reelect governments) or sociotropic (people vote to reward governments that deliver national prosperity, but punish those blamed for economic difficulties). Alternatively, economic voting decisions may be prospective: voters support the party considered most likely to deliver future prosperity (national or personal).

Studies of the 1983 and 1987 British general elections suggested that economic voting accounted for the growing spatial polarization in support for the two main parties—the so-called north–south divide. Similar types of people in different areas perceived a different national economic situation and voted accordingly (Johnston et al. 1988)—the incumbent government performed better in the prospering ‘south’ than in the depressed ‘north.’ Pattie and Johnston (1995) introduced a third component to the retrospective voting model: as well as evaluating the government’s record on the production of national and personal prosperity, voters also judged its economic performance against the state of their own region’s economy.

1.2 Local Influences On Voting Decisions

Most voting decisions result from interactions, many indirect, between political parties and electors, which include local interactions that influence election outcomes. Key’s (1949) book on elections where party cues were irrelevant provided a major stimulus; the Democratic party dominated politics in the southern US for nearly a century, and voters’ main choices were among contenders for its nomination at primary contests. Many candidates performed best in their home areas, creating a ‘friends and neighbors effect.’ This was formalized by Reynolds (1969) and extended by Cox (1969): voting decisions are influenced by spatially-biased information flows—what Cox called the acquaintance-circle process—which generate not only support for local candidates but also more general ‘neighborhood effects’ whereby an area’s majority opinion is accentuated if those initially favoring minority views are won over through a process of ‘conversion by conversation.’

Results consistent with the neighborhood effect have been produced by studies using ecological data, but their generating processes can only be inferred (Miller 1977, Eagles 1995a, 1995b)—hence Dunleavy’s (1979) critique. The few process studies that have been undertaken (notably Huckfeldt and Sprague 1995) provide strong evidence that ‘those who talk together vote together’ (however, see Curtice 1995 and Pattie and Johnston 1999).

Study of neighborhood, or local contextual, effects has been extended by geographers interested in the specificity of particular places, especially their local cultures. Cox (1969) called this the forced-field process: a local political culture is established by parties and/or other interest groups (such as trades unions) and forms the basis for mobilizing the local electorate around either particular views on general issues or local issues. The resulting geography of votes may show some areas deviating significantly from wider trends, as in Cox’s (1970) work on Wales. The approach was extended by Agnew’s (1987) case studies from Scotland, Italy, and the US on mobilization within local milieux. He codified the processes involved through six claims (Agnew 1996):

(a) Class and community affiliations take on different meanings according to the nature of individual places within the spatial division of labor;

(b) Communication systems limit interaction across space in some situations, leading to separate networks within which politically relevant information flows and is interpreted;

(c) There are continuing tensions between local areas and their encompassing national states, which foster spatial variations in political mobilization;

(d) All cleavages—class, gender, race, age, etc.— have local as well as national histories within which the structuration of political movements occurs;

(e) Many political parties claim local roots and policy directions in their electoral manifestos, which can result in spatially-varying support; and

(f) The microgeography of everyday settings— home, work, leisure, etc.—can stimulate local distinctiveness that is reflected in voting patterns.

1.3 Local Campaigns And Election Outcomes

Mobilizing support in communities is particularly active during the campaign period preceding an election. Although national and regional media are used widely, local campaigns are crucial for disseminating information about candidates and canvassing support and turnout. This requires expenditure, and the more that candidates spend in their constituencies the better their performance (Jacobson 1980, Johnston 1987, Pattie et al. 1995); spending is a good surrogate for other aspects of local campaigning, demonstrating that the more intensive a party’s campaign in a place, the better its relative performance (Denver and Hands 1997)—including campaigns for tactical votes to unseat an unpopular incumbent (Johnston et al. 1988).

2. The Geography Of Constituency Definition

Almost all electoral systems allocate (at least some) legislative seats by territorially-defined constituencies. Definition of constituency boundaries is crucial: victory or defeat can depend upon a constituency’s voters’ characteristics.

Interest in constituency definition developed during the US 1960s ‘redistricting (or reapportionment) revolution’ (Baker 1966). Two ‘abuses’ were practiced widely where parties controlled redistricting: malapportionment, whereby constituencies with widely differing populations were created—parties maximized their returns (the ratio of seats to votes) by having small constituencies where they were strong but large ones in their opponents’ heartlands; and gerrymandering, whereby parties delimited constituencies, whatever their size, so that their supporters were in a majority in as many as possible (Morrill 1973, 1981). Malapportionment was outlawed by the Supreme Court in the 1960s and strict equality criteria were set. Gerrymandering was considered much harder to tackle, because of difficulties proving intent to discriminate against those minorities protected under the Fourteenth Amendment, used in most of the relevant cases (Grofman 1990); the Voting Rights Act 1965 and its successors provided a basis for challenging maps which apparently discriminated against black voters, although the Courts have been inconsistent in their rulings (Grofman 1998). Redistricting is largely nonpartisan in its conduct elsewhere, but parties in the UK influence the details to their own electoral benefit (Rossiter et al. 1999).

Defining constituencies, using smaller areas as building blocks, exemplifies the modifiable area unit problem well-known in spatial statistics. Gudgin and Taylor (1979) developed a sophisticated theory of the process which they linked to the production of electoral bias—both intentional, through explicit malapportionment and gerrymandering strategies, and unintentional, through nonpartisan procedures with outcomes consistent with those strategies: other geographical factors are important bias generators, such as district size effects (Taagepera and Shugart 1989). Bias identification has been extended using Brookes’s (1960) index, subdivided into six components, all spatial (Johnston et al. 1999, Rossiter et al. 1999).

3. The Geography Of Representation And The Geography Of Power

Relatively little has been done on the second pair of maps: electoral geographers have concentrated on the inputs to electoral systems rather than their outputs.

Studies of the geography of representation focus on the translation of votes into seats, especially under the first-past-the-post electoral system. A party’s representation is spatially more polarized than its support among the electorate in many cases, as in the UK during the 1980s (Johnston et al. 1988): such ‘geographical divisiveness’ was presented as a major rationale for reforming the country’s electoral system (Jenkins 1998).

Spatial polarization of representation may be reflected in the geography of public policy, with governing parties favoring areas they draw legislators from. Shelley et al. (1996) illustrated this for the US where the allocation of some public goods involves pork barreling: individual Representatives and Senators use their positions on Congressional Committees to win benefits for their constituencies (Johnston 1980, Stein and Bickers 1995).

4. Conclusions

Elections are based on geographies. Electoral geographers stress the importance of the creation and interaction of the geography of votes and the geography of constituencies, for which they have developed novel analytical procedures (such as: Archer and Taylor’s (1981) adaptation of factor analysis for identifying electoral continuity and critical elections; Rossiter and Johnston’s (1981) computer simulation of the UK redistricting procedure; Johnston and Hay’s (1982) adaptation of entropy-maximizing methods to estimate detailed voting patterns at various spatial scales; Jones et al’s. (1992) multilevel modeling of voting patterns at scales from the individual upwards; and Johnston et al’s. (1999) extension of Brooke’s algebra for estimating biases in election outcomes). They have shown that the map of votes cannot be ‘read off’ from a map of cleavages but must take account of other influences on voting decisions, many of which (such as the friends and neighbors effect, the neighborhood effect, the pattern of local culture, and the geography of campaign mobilization) involve processes that are differentiated geographically. These interact with the geography of constituencies to produce electoral outcomes that frequently are biased towards one party, and which in turn produce geographies of representation within which geographies of policy implementation are inscribed.


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