One of the top electoral trends of 2020 can be summed up in three little words: ranked choice voting. It’s gaining traction at a breakneck pace. The number of cities using ranked choice voting has more than doubled since 2010. In 2020, the Democratic Party used ranked choice voting successfully in five presidential primaries and caucuses, and Republicans used it to nominate candidates for statewide office and Congress in Indiana, Utah and Virginia. Mainers expect to rank presidential candidates in order of choice this fall.
Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of their choice. They rank their favorite candidate first, their next favorite second, and stop when indifferent to the remaining candidates.
But there’s no clear media standard on how to cover these elections, and that could mean big problems for outlets this November.
Where the challenge for reporters exists is on the counting: If a candidate receives a majority of the votes – more than 50% – they win, just like in any other election. If no candidate has more than half of those votes, there is an instant runoff. The candidate with the fewest first choices is eliminated. The voters who selected the defeated candidate as a first choice then have their votes- added to the totals of their next choice. This process continues until a candidate wins with more than half of the active votes.
Some outlets just publish the first round of results or the final tally when announcing the results of ranked choice voting elections. This coverage fundamentally gets half the story wrong: if outlets just publish the final tally, they share who won but not necessarily who voters most wanted as their favorite candidate. Alternatively, if outlets just cover the first round and who won, the frontrunner from the first round could be different from the winner and appear confusing to the reader.
Looking ahead, we could see such an outcome in Maine in either the presidential race or the US Senate race, where at least one independent candidate is in the race with Republican Susan Collins and Democrat Sara Gideon. This is a contest with a national spotlight on it: not one where you want your results page to show one person seemingly behind, yet being declared the winner.
So how should reporters and outlets publish the results from ranked choice voting elections? It’s simple:
● Mention that the election used ranked choice voting: otherwise, your readers won’t know what your data is referencing.
● Publish the first round of results and the final tally. Newspapers could certainly illustrate how each round of votes were distributed, as FairVote did for Kansans’ Democratic presidential primary this year, but comparing the first round to the final tally is a clear way to illustrate both who voters’ first choices were and who ultimately emerged victorious.
● Use cautious language when describing the outcome of each round of results: whoever has the greatest number of votes at the end of the first round is “ahead” at the end of the first round of counting, but they did not “win” that round. This will prevent confusion over who ultimately wins the ranked choice voting election.
● If forced to only show one data set (for example, when using a map to illustrate results or a bar/pie chart), publish the final tally between the two finalists, not the first choices.
Ranked choice voting elections are here to stay, but as long as there are no industry standards the results could appear muddied. Having clear protocols for election results will be key to ensuring outlets are trusted for their election coverage this year.