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PoliticsSeptember 24, 2017

A better visual breakdown of the 2017 election results

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The usual way electoral results maps are presented can be deceiving, overemphasising the relative importance of large but sparsely populated rural areas. Stephen Beban shares his map that more accurately reflects last night’s results.

This post was updated on 16 October 2017 to reflect the final vote tallies.

If you watched the results on election night, you may have seen the map of New Zealand’s electorates. Despite the overall party vote, showing a relatively close result (with New Zealand First holding the balance of power), one would be forgiven for thinking a National landslide had occurred based on the amount of blue covering the map of the electorates. For example, TVNZ displayed the following map as part of its coverage:

The Geographic Electorate Map

Credit: TVNZ

The same was true for the 2014 map as well:

The key problem with using a geographically accurate map is that densely-populated urban areas are obscured, whereas vast rural electorates are exaggerated. Each electorate may contain the same amount of people and influence, but visually the former are underemphasised and the latter are overemphasised. For example, the Clutha-Southland electorate could comfortable fit all 30 electorates for the Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch areas combined several times over.

To compensate, maps are given insets, zooming in on the population centers (as seen above). But this only achieves so much; the electorates can be identified, but are still vastly out of proportion.

The Electorate Hexamap

To try and resolve this issue, I developed a map back in 2016 to complement the traditional one. Instead of geographic accuracy, we want to reflect the equal political power of all 71 electorates by displaying them as the same size. This is a particular type of cartogram called a ‘hexamap’ – each electorate is represented by five equally-sized hexagons.

The Electorate Hexamap retains the general shape of the country, and places each electorate as well as possible to remain in as similar position relative to its neighbours. However, it does render some electorates trickier to identify once they have variously expanded or contracted. For example, Auckland has such a large population, it extends as far as where Lake Taupo would otherwise be; similarly West-Cost Tasman shrinks to the North-Western most corner of the South Island. The flipside of this is that we get a much better sense of proportion.

The Electorate Hexamap – Candidate Vote

The first and most obvious way to use the hexamap is to show the winners of the candidate vote in each electorate. Much like in the pre-MMP era, the dominance of the two largest parties is striking. And even when minor parties secure an electorate seat, they struggle to achieve winning margins on par with most major-party candidates.

Electorate Hexamap – Party Vote

However, showing the candidate results carries the unavoidable consequence of presenting a distorted picture as it does not account for the full distribution of political support. So the more striking use of the hexamap is the ability to more clearly visualize the distribution of support for the Government and Opposition parties.

To give a better sense of how the country is balanced in 2017, we can take the votes of all parties that won a seat in Parliament last election (2014), and compare those in the Government (National, Māori, Act, and United Future) versus the Opposition (Labour, Greens, and New Zealand First), relative to the country as a whole.

Whereas Government parties won 52.6% of the vote in 2014; New Zealand gave 47.9% of the vote to Government parties in 2017, and 52.1% to Opposition parties. To stay in power, an Opposition party will need to be persuaded to join the Government. Ōtaki, the most closely-divided electorate, gave 51.6% of its vote to the Opposition, making it marginally Government-leaning (48.4% versus 47.9% nationally, voting 0.57% to the right of the nation).

This reveals that, in 2017, 37 electorates leant more towards the government, whilst 34 leant more towards the Opposition. With a few exceptions; more urban areas and the Māori electorates lean more towards the Opposition, whilst rural areas more towards the Government.

In both instances, the hexamap gives a visual impression far more reflective of how New Zealand votes than what we can achieve with the traditional map alone. It is not a substitute for the geographic map, but a complementary way to better inform readers interested in the political landscape of the country.

Stephen Beban is a Wellington-based policy analyst at a government department. He previously worked for US non-profit FairVote as an electoral analyst.

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