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I'm thinking of something similar to this:

Let's say instead of a general election, the UK had decided to hold a second referendum on Brexit. Among the two options Remain & Leave, it's unclear which will win (in the first referendum, the results had been 52% Leave 48% Remain). However, before the referendum, a natural disaster destroys London and kills everyone in it. London's population voted 60-40 to Remain, so without this Remain-voting population, Leave wins the second referendum easily.

Has this ever happened? Wikipedia has a list of natural disasters that caused a lot of deaths, but moving from that to referendum results is not easy. Presumably we would need 1) a high death toll, and 2) regions of the electorate which are more polarized than others, and the disaster only hits one region. Among the ten deadliest disasters, 6 happened in China (which doesn't have real elections/referendums anyway), 2 of the remainder occurred before modern democracies, and of the final two (the 1970 Bhola cyclone and 2010 Haiti earthquake) I can't find any indication of an impact on subsequent elections.

One possibility could be some kind of deadly cyclone in the Caribbean, since some US regions are politically polarized, but death tolls from these cyclones seem too small (e.g. Hurricane Katrina caused billions of dollars in damages, but killed "only" 1,836 people).

It doesn't have to be a deadly natural disaster - if the disaster causes people to move en masse, and that causes a different election/referendum result, I'm also interested in that.

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    Unfortunately, any answer to this interesting question will be based on a what-if. Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 4:35
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    You might find an example or two by looking into governments that got thrown out after a botched response to a disaster. See e.g. the US in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina. Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 5:24
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    @DenisdeBernardy good point. I'm not interested in that kind of impact however (but I don't know how to word the title to exclude it).
    – Allure
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 6:59
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    Hm, your recent edit of the title changes the meaning of the question. Not good for my A, but OK for you (I mean that). But the body still says "need not be deadly"? Apart from the discrepancy: 'moved people' can still vote, and a basic assumption seems to be that most voters do not flip their allegiance (like: 'R/D voters for life', 'Brexit forever'?). For the "moved" part: you may mean 'fled to another country, expatriated, or absolutely 'excluded by conditions' from voting' (like European Syrians not likely to vote for or against Assad any time soon)? Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 11:29
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    @LаngLаngС yeah, sorry about that! "Fled to another country" sounds about right, it is a natural disaster so it seems like the most logical way to change an election's results. It doesn't have to be moving to another country though: e.g. if an earthquake causes California to become a desolate wasteland, and most of the electorate (who primarily vote Democrat) move to Arizona (which is primarily Republican) thereby causing Arizona to "switch sides", that should also count.
    – Allure
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 11:51

3 Answers 3

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Katrina had a huge electoral impact. It wasn't the death so much as it was the evacuation. For a while in the immediate wake of the storm the city was simply not safe to live in. However, a significant amount of its population had no access to personal transport, so they had to be bussed out to nearby metropoli large enough to absorb them, most notably Houston.

When the city was safe again, there was little or no attempt to bring these people (who of course still had no personal transport) back to the city. This had the effect of permanently removing a huge chunk of the black population of the city. New Orleans had always been big enough that it dominated Louisiana politics, but the new smaller New Orleans could no longer do so, and most of those poor black evacuees voted for the same party. Effectively the evacuation disembowled the Democratic party in Louisiana.

Pre-evacuation Louisiana was a lowkey swing state, that had voted for the last two Democratic candidates for President in all 3 elections the Democratic candidate won, and typically had a Democratic governor. It was projected to be a majority-minority state sometime around the date of this post.

Post-evacuation Louisiana has become a reliably "Red" state. No Democratic Presidential candidate has lost it by less than 9 points. Neither of the two governors elected since then hailed from New Orleans, and both ran as anti-abortion. According to Vox (WARNING: popups) it now won't become majority-minority until 2039.

The only similar event I know of was the Dust Bowl of the 1930's, which caused a large population displacement from Oklahoma to California. 15% of the state became refugees, and nearly a third of a million refugees from the 5 plains states affected ended up in California.

The electoral impact in Oklahoma (and the other affected states) wasn't very noticeable, as the refugees largely were as Democratic in their voting behavior as the "Okies" left behind. However, in California, which was previously a reliably Republican state in the Libertarian mold, the influx of poor socially-conservative Democrats who felt abandoned by their government* had a large impact on its future politics. It went from a reliably Republican state to its role as a swing state in the new Fifth Party System (aka: "New Deal Party System")

* - In modern US political terms, you might call this something like "fiscally socialist".

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    How much of this Katrina argument is post-hoc-ergo-propter hoc? In 2016 Louisiana was already described as "red deepening for a generation" (meaning: do you have a more direct ref for this conclusion? Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 15:37
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    @LаngLаngС - All political history explanations start off that way, since your only real test is the natural experiments of the occasional periodic elections. However, having lived in both places for multiple years and engaged in the politics there, and kept up with the interests in detail, I can personally vouch for a certain amount of it.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 15:49
  • (2) It can be hard to separate the long-term ongoing split of the Democratic party on racial lines in the South inherent in the new forming Sixth Party system from the racial population changes, but there's a qualitative difference there. You see it in Louisiana by a sudden change from "swing" to "red" status, and by the nature of its statewide elected officials immediately before and after.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 15:54
  • (3) Simply, modern successful LA politicians are no longer in any way shape or form designed to appeal to the unique culture of New Orleans voters, and now look nearly identical to their counterparts in neighboring states. You can't get votes from voters who no longer exist. Pre-Katrina LA politicians were a breed unique to LA. Post-Katrina they are just southern politicians like any other.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 16:02
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    (4) And yes, New Orleans has (or at least had in the pre-Katrina days when I lived there) a unique culture in the US. They aren't otherwise very similar, but the only other place I've ever been in the US that truly felt like a different country was Miami. Even New York City just feels like certain aspects of the US distilled, but those places are different.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 16:10
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It seems that one basic assumption in the question is stable voting behaviour of affected people. That is likely a quite difficult to test hypothesis. Like in the old paradoxon that if the dumbest person moves from country A to B he might indeed raise the average intelligence of both countries?

If people are killed by a catastrophe those all cannot vote anymore. If it is an event that affects rich and poor differently an effect seems to be expected. However some analysis after Katrina concludes:

Voters whom the media portrayed as having likely higher costs of casting ballots are not necessarily so affected. Although flooding does decrease the probability that an individual casts a ballot, the relationship between flooding and race, partisan registration, and age are not key determi- nants of the likelihood that an individual casts a ballot. Furthermore, the depth of flooding does not have a constant effect on the probability that an individual casts a vote. That is, within areas of New Orleans that experienced significant flooding, worse flooding has a clear positive association with turnout. Also, heavier flooding is not associated, as might have been expected, with larger negative effects on citizens with fewer personal resources. Both of these findings are counterintuitive. […]

Individuals who live in areas that had large- scale flooding were actually more likely to vote in 2006 than others who suffered less flooding.
— Betsy Sinclair, Thad E. Hall, R. Michael Alvarez: "Flooding the Vote: Hurricane Katrina and Voter Participation in New Orleans", American Politics Research, Vol 39, Issue 5, 2011.

But this is also an effect of very much concerted efforts in that area to compensate the natural effects of the storm.

Again in May, New Orleans’ voters had a weeklong opportunity to vote early, either in person at a satellite voting location or via an absentee ballot, and on May 20th in-town voters made their way to their local polling locations to choose the next mayor. By the end ofthe evening, Ray Nagin had been re-elected to another four-year term as mayor. He won 59,460 votes to Mitch Landrieu’s 54,131, a 5,329 vote difference that amounted to a 4 percent victory. Nagin won despite Landrieu’s spending advantage because of his ability to win white voters. While he only won 10 percent of white voters in the primary, Nagin captured around 20 percent of their votes in the runoff Landrieu again managed to secure to votes of around 20 percent of African-American voters, but since African-American voters comprised a majority of the electorate, Nagin’s 80-20 advantage with that group propelled him to victory (Krupa, 2006a).
— Brian Brox: "Elections and Voting in Post-Katrina New Orleans", Southern Studies: An InterdisciplinaryJournal of the South, Fall/Winter 2009, 16(2): 1-23.

The assumed voting preference stability is contestable, though. Many voters in any system may flip their choices at any time (unlike: 'Republican/Democrat voters for life', 'Brexiteer forever'?).

One example were the voting behaviour did flip because of a natural disaster:

It is not so much related to really killing off a large part of the electorate, but the federal election 2002 in Germany is widely analysed as being hugely influenced by the floods of that year.

The then chancellor 'social-democrat' Schröder had run his course and accomplished not much, but forcing anti-social laws and precarious labour, on top of ousting Helmut Kohl from power. People liked the removal of Kohl but were pretty soon fed up with his neo-liberal and neo-conservative agenda of feeding the rich.

During the election campaign two outside events worked in his favour:

  1. The planned Iraq war: the foreign policy stance was "nope, not coming" and people liked that (usually German electorate is strongly against any foreign military interventions and war mongering, but the right wing parties Greens, SPD, FDP and CDU/CSU just do it anyway, once elected and in power.)

  2. The floods immediately provided ample picture opportunity of a "man in charge" wandering about the landscape in wellingtons and looking at things with rolled up sleeves. His main rival just reacted too late for that to be effective.

Only through two "chance events", the Oder flood in East Germany and the Iraq war, which Schröder deliberately used in his election campaign, was the SPD able to defend the government in the 2002 federal elections (Raschke 2003; Quandt 2005).
— Tim Spier & Ulrich von Alemann: "Die Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD)", in: Oskar Niedermayer (Ed): "Handbuch Parteienforschung", Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden, 2013, p444.

enter image description here
— Michael Stürmer: "Als Schröder Stoiber im Hochwasser versenkte", Welt, 14.08.2012.

enter image description here
— Günter Bannas: "Geschichte wiederholt sich nicht", FAZ, 26.08.2005.

How reliable or valid this kind of analysis is might be a matter of dispute though. In the above example the main rival had a lot of disadvantages running against him: terrible public speaker, Bavarian, etc…

An in-depth study using a detailed, but limited methodology did not find a large influence

Kosta Bovan & Benjamin Banai & Irena Pavela Banai: "Do Natural Disasters Affect Voting Behavior? Evidence from Croatian Floods", PLOS Current Disasters, 2018.

But such disasters are always a great opportunity for politicians to make them appear as 'caring', when it benefits them:

After extensive testing for the sensitivity of my results, the most important findings reported in this paper provide clear evidence that governments increase their public spending after a large-scale natural disaster more when elections are upcoming in the same year.
— Jereon Klomp: "Election or Disaster Support?", The Journal of Development Studies Volume 56, Issue 1, 2020.

It stands to reason that these freak and outside events influence voting behaviour beyond any remains of rationality, sorely lacking anyway:

Though we are barely two decades into the twenty-first century, we have already seen the dramatic ways in which terrorist attacks, natural disasters, extreme weather, and other calamities can affect impending and ongoing elections. We can help preserve the fundamental right to vote by carefully considering the issues such election emergencies raise ahead of time and crafting emergency statutes to empower election officials to respond appropriately.
— Michael T. Morley: "Election Emergencies: Voting in the Wake of Natural Disasters and Terrorist Attacks", Emory Law Journal, Vo 67, No 3, 2017.

Natural disasters that actually killed a lot of people were the 2011 floods in Pakistan. The afected area was comparatively small, but the voter turnout was altered substantially depending on area and ex-ante flood risk. Meaning that areas with low prior experience of floods and government aid massively increased their voting while areas with highest prior floods actually decreased it.
— C. Christine Fair et al.: "Natural Disasters and Political Engagement: Evidence from the 2010-11 Pakistani Floods", 2015. (PDF)

Pooling the available data suggests:

Disasters affect leader tenure. The positive significant coefficient estimates on the disasters variable in Models 9 and 11 indicate that the occurrence of a disaster will jeopardize a small coalition leader’s hold on office. Models 10 and 12 examine the effect of disasters in both the current and previous years. Joint hypothesis tests of the effects across these two years show that disasters increase the risk to autocrats. In contrast, disasters – at least low casualty ones – lower the risk of deposition in large coalition systems. Across the four models, the sum of the estimates of the disasters variables and their interaction with W is negative and generally statistically significant. Disasters help democratic leaders stay in power, but imperil autocrats. This result for democracies is consistent with prior evidence. Abney and Hill, Chen, Healy and Malhotra, and Reeves have shown that US leaders can benefit from the opportunity to disperse benefits and demonstrate competence in the aftermath of disasters; Olson and Gawronski also found evidence in favour of this hypothesis in their analysis of several case studies around the world. The story is reversed when it comes to evaluating disaster-related fatalities. The small statistically insignificant coefficient estimate on the deaths variable indicates that small coalition leaders are relatively immune to disaster-related deaths. However the estimates of the interactions between W and the deaths variables are larger, and joint hypothesis tests show that increased deaths impose a statistically significant threat to the tenure of large coalition leaders.
— Alejandro Quiroz Flores & Alastair Smith: "Leader Survival and Natural Disasters", British Journal of Political Science, Volume 43, Issue 4 October 2013 , pp. 821-843.

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    Germany 2002 is probably as close to an example as one can find but calling all the parties Greens, SPD, FDP and CDU/CSU 'right wing' is just wrong. These parties made up around 90% of the politicial landscape in 2002 and the Greens and the SPD are clearly left of the center. This makes your argument work even better though because people had to choose between left of center SPD/Schröder and conversative CSU/Stoiber and so Schröder was considered less likely to be pulled into the Iraq war by the US.
    – quarague
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 16:13
  • @quarague Well, for one that's a play on Vidal (the left wing party in parliament is called "The Left" ) and then especially under Schröder the actual policy outcome of the SPD was perhaps left of CSU but decidedly not left-of-centre. Political parties aren't Gaussian distributive across the spectrum. Personal humour & prefs aside, I really think Iraq during campaign was more key than flood, contrary to most analysts. & GS did favour Afghanistan, Kosovo etc, when not worried about re-election. Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 17:50
  • I would say that parties are by definition sort of Gaussian or at least distributed around some spectrum. Of course you could say that all parties are right (or left) of what you consider a center position. But the center is by definition the middle of the actually elected parties and roughly half of them are left and half are right of center. If you call all but die Linke right-of-center then the center is not the center but rather far to the left of it. The US democrats are left of center in the US but they would place right of center in the German parliament. The center is not the same.
    – quarague
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 13:46
  • @quarague Yo. This is exactly the thought process I wanted to achieve. I argue from an absolute evaluation, also for international comparability, whereas your counter is either derived from local "seat-geography" or moving goal posts regarding content positions (+: "the SPD moved to the right"). If "the centre" should be defined as 'the same everywhere', the result for American politics gets interesting using both our definitions if we add to Rep/Dem the CPUSA or DSA: My model remains unchanged, in yours the gravity shifts, despite both biguns not moving (that much & many Reps still hungry). Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 16:53
  • I think trying to argue from an absolute evaluation is difficult to impossible as you would need a universal definition of where the center is. I don't think one can add or remove parties from the discussion at will. There is a center of the current US congress (for example) which is defined through exactly the currently elected members. The center may change after an election and the center of the Senate need to not be exactly the same as the center of Congress but this still gives a proper definition of 'Senator X is left of center' or 'Senator Y is far right'.
    – quarague
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 7:47
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Partial answer (which I thought of some time after asking the question): the case of the Trojan Horse.

According to the story, near the end of the Trojan War, the Greeks lifted the siege leaving a wooden horse behind. The wooden horse was actually a ruse, since it contained Greek soldiers within. The Trojans were debating what to do with the horse, with some wanting to burn it. Then a "natural disaster" killed the people who most wanted to burn the horse, leaving the other faction victorious and thereby ensuring the doom of the Trojans:

The most detailed description of Laocoön's grisly fate was provided by Quintus Smyrnaeus in Posthomerica, a later, literary version of events following the Iliad. According to Quintus, Laocoön begged the Trojans to set fire to the horse to ensure it was not a trick. Athena, angry with him and the Trojans, shook the ground around Laocoön's feet and painfully blinded him. The Trojans, watching this unfold, assumed Laocoön was punished for the Trojans' mutilating and doubting Sinon, the undercover Greek soldier sent to convince the Trojans to let him and the horse inside their city walls. Thus, the Trojans wheeled the great wooden Horse in. Laocoön did not give up trying to convince the Trojans to burn the horse, and Athena made him pay even further. She sent two giant sea serpents to strangle and kill him and his two sons. In another version of the story, it was said that Poseidon sent the sea serpents to strangle and kill Laocoön and his two sons.

This is still only a partial answer because:

  • It's probably a myth.
  • Getting killed by sea serpents is not exactly what most people would call a "natural disaster".
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    It may not be a "natural disaster" - but it most certainly was "an act of god(dess)'. Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 7:51

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