In the 2002 French presidential election, voters on the left were lumped with an unpalatable choice: vote for their longtime conservative enemy, Jacques Chirac, or abstain but risk handing the election to the far-right candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Progressive voters did their duty and reluctantly lined up at ballot boxes to cast their vote for Chirac, who was re-elected with a record 82% of the vote.
This turn of events doesn’t on face value seem an endorsement of the runoff system, especially when Le Pen had just 17% of the primary vote and Chirac just 20% in the first round. Together the pair had less than 50% of the vote.
It prompts the question why, given this obvious flaw, is the Guardian/BirdLife Australia bird of the year poll moving to a runoff system, where 10 birds will go through to a final round?
It’s because although there are weaknesses in the runoff system it also has its strengths. In 2017 the vote took place as a single round. Fifty birds entered, one was victorious. The magpie polled just 13.3% of the vote – even worse than Le Pen – with 19,926 votes out of a total of almost 150,000 votes. This was just ahead of the ibis, with 12.7% of the vote. The other 74% of the vote was cast for 48 other birds.
I pointed out at the time how this voting system can tend to favour divisive winners: those that may be disliked by many but passionately liked by a few. In the 2016 Republican primary in the US, Donald Trump was one of 17 candidates. While Trump was the clear leader in most polls, he rarely passed 40% of the vote, and sometimes polled in the 20s. His supporters rallied to his position but his opponents were scattered among numerous other candidates. Trump later picked up more support but lacked majority support for most of the primaries.
In bird of the year, fans of the magpie and ibis (neither of which we are suggesting were the Trump candidate) concentrated behind those options, while 17% of the vote was split between eight different parrots, and 7% was split between two different fairywrens.
This time, there will be a first round featuring 50 birds, as well as a write-in option. The top 10 will then go through to a second round.
Such a system will help ensure that voters will get a second chance to vote for one of the birds that actually has a chance of winning. Eleven of the 50 birds in this year’s list are parrots or cockatoos. If you are generally a fan of the cockatoo, the two-round system ensures you can vote for your favourite then swing in behind the most popular in the final round.
In one sense it’s a kind of preferential system but without worrying about the complexity of a numbered ballot paper.
But bird of the year is not an election. A better parallel would perhaps be the Academy Awards, where academy members first vote to narrow the field down to five or 10 nominees, who then face off to decide the winner of each prize.
Of course, this isn’t a pure measurement of Australia’s favourite bird. Rather it’s a contest where voters can be influenced by campaigning, and by how others have already voted. If you’re choosing between a bird which is now coming first and one that is on the verge of making the top 10, you might choose to vote for the latter.
When you look at which birds picked up the most votes in 2017, a few trends emerge. Almost all of the top 10 have reasonably widespread distributions across Australia. The main exception was the southern cassowary, which came ninth with 2.8% of the vote. There was a vote split in the fifth-placed superb fairywren, which covers south-eastern Australia, and the 10th-placed splendid fairywren, which is mostly in western and central Australia.
City-dwelling birds took out the top positions, in particular the magpie and the ibis, and to a lesser extent the third-placed kookaburra. Other top-ranking birds including the fairywren, rainbow lorikeet and willie wagtail are also common sights in the parts of Australia where most humans live.
This year there are a number of endangered species on the list, which although not commonly seen, could harness the support of teams of conservationists, such as the wonderfully named Difficult Bird Research Group.
There are also a lot of voters who are partial to a parrot, which could lead to a parrot winning if only one parrot makes it through to the second round.
So what should we watch for this year?
I think the favourites will be a mix of the birds people are most likely to see, along with a few iconic birds including the tawny frogmouth and the cassowary. And don’t expect the bird that leads after the first round to necessarily win after voters get a second chance.