Analysis: Newsroom has received exclusive access to the vote data for the year’s most important election

The most important election in 2020 was a nail-biter.

While one candidate started out in the lead, as the vote count proceeded it became clear another would win. It wasn’t the eventual victor’s first go, either – they had previously won a momentous election in 2008 as well.

I’m talking, of course, about Bird of the Year.

Newsroom has received exclusive access to a spreadsheet of election data for the 2020 contest. It’s important to note, however, that the original spreadsheet contained 64,881 votes, while Forest & Bird have told Stuff that 55,583 votes were cast.

When Newsroom inquired about the discrepancy, we were sent a new spreadsheet of only the “verified” votes – which totalled just 48,745. We understand that this dissonance is being challenged in a number of frivolous court cases so will mention it no further.

Nail-biter (claw-biter?) between top two birds

The Kākāpō has been crowned the 2020 Bird of the Year, but it was a close run thing.

This marks the first time that a bird has won reelection, with the Kākāpō having previously run away with the 2008 Bird of the Year contest.

At the outset, however, it seemed like the Toroa/Antipodean albatross was destined for victory.

Could infighting have been the Toroa’s demise? Photo: Duncan Wright/Flickr

This is the second year that Bird of the Year has used a Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, in which voters are asked to rank up to five candidates. If their first choice bird is eliminated due to having the fewest votes, then their second choice bird gets their vote until that bird, too, is eliminated.

The Toroa received more first choice votes – 4,699 – than any other bird, by far. In fact, it had nearly half again as many as its closest competitor, the Kākāpō, with 3,249.

The first bird to be eliminated was the migratory Red Knot, which received just 11 first choice votes. But it wasn’t until much later in the competition that the Kākāpō caught up. Only when the sixth place Kererū was eliminated and its 4,705 votes were redistributed did the Kākāpō surge past the Toroa.

The Kererū didn’t win, but its supporters helped to flip the race for the Kākāpō. Photo: Marc Daalder

In the end, the flightless green parrot conquered its mirror opposite – the Toroa flies 100,000 kilometres a year as part of its annual migration – by a margin of just 757 votes, 10,773 to 10,016.

Who’s up, who’s on the ground

It wasn’t all disappointment for the Toroa, however. The albatross was one of a number of birds to improve its ranking on last year’s competition. The Toroa found itself up eight places, from 10 to second place.

The greatest leap, however, came for the Little Spotted Kiwi, which rose 20 places to 16th. The Variable Oystercatcher experienced the second largest rise, up 17 places from 72nd to a three-way tie for 55th place.

The Variable Oystercatcher jumped 17 places to a three-way tie for 55th. Photo: Marc Daalder

The largest fall was experienced by another shorebird, the Wrybill, which dropped 35 places to 58th, from 23rd in 2019. The Hoiho/Yellow-eyed Penguin, which won the 2019 competition, ruled out a reelection bid and dropped 25 places this year. 

That decision to withdraw may have harmed the fortunes of the other three penguins on the ballot as well. Only the Fiordland Crested Penguin managed to improve its place, up four spots to 20th. The Little Penguin and the Rockhopper dropped nine and 13 spots, respectively.

With the STV voting system, birds are able to form alliances and encourage voters to pick a whole suite of candidates. Since birds of a feather flock together, the new system has seen a number of political alliances emerge.

Last year, the Penguin Party propelled the Hoiho to first place – on average, when a penguin was eliminated, its party members received five times as many votes as other birds.

The Little Penguin delegation to the Penguin Party’s AGM, presumably. Photo: Marc Daalder

Party politics

2020 saw the advent of several more parties, including the Kiwi Koalition and the shorebird-focused Beach Boi Party. An informal Coalition of Serious Trouble also launched, which didn’t offer a specific slate of candidates but encouraged people to vote for any of the most endangered birds on the ballot.

The Kiwi Koalition and the Beach Boi Party saw similar success to the Penguin Party at distributing votes among party members, although this didn’t help them climb as high as the flightless penguins did in 2019.

When the Variable Oystercatcher was eliminated, for example, its fellow Beach Bois – the Royal Spoonbill and New Zealand Dotterel – each received 13 votes on average, compared to the two votes each other bird received on average.

It is possible that the Toroa’s decision to go it alone ended up being something of an albatross around its neck – party members might have boosted it to first place in the end.

The 2020 competition saw a few changes in the candidates available, as well. Forest & Bird thinned out the swarm of 85 birds on the ballot in 2019, condensing the array of albatrosses, oystercatchers, shags and petrels into just a single representative of each family.

The Royal Spoonbill received 6.5 times more votes than other birds when the Variable Oystercatcher was eliminated. Photo: Marc Daalder

The addition of six new birds, however, meant that a total of 73 were available to choose from in the end. The Okarito Brown Kiwi fared the best of the newcomers, coming 52nd, while the last place Red Knot did the worst.

Four birds held their positions – the Kea, Tūī, North Island Brown Kiwi and Pūkeko all found themselves at the same place on the list as last year.

Note: The author of this article was the campaign manager for the Variable Oystercatcher. Newsroom does not usually allow such conflicts of interest, but come on, it’s a bird election.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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