Misleading Headlines With Bad Political Consequences

In advance of a possible Susan Collins loss in Maine, the headline writers at the New York Times and Washington Post are blaming Maine’s ranked-choice voting system (don’t blame the authors of these stories, they do not control the headlines). The reason is that once the votes are transferred from the independent candidate, Lisa Savage, who is projected to come in third, most of those votes are thought to be going to Collins’ opponent, Sara Gideon.

What these headlines fail to recognize is that the type of voting system we use changes the mix of candidates who will choose to run. If Maine had stayed with traditional plurality-winner voting, Lisa Savage might well not have run at all. It’s clear she has no desire to damage Gideon’s campaign and strongly prefers her to Collins. In a traditional voting system, Savage would have siphoned votes from Gideon, which could have thrown the election to Collins. Savage understands this, and since her candidacy would have threatened to sink Gideon, Savage quite likely would not have run. And in a two-person race between Collins and Gideon, Gideon might well have won (we will have to see what the voting tallies show).

But once Maine adopted RCV, Savage could safely run, push her message, but know that doing so would not damage Gideon, because left-leaning voters could rank Savage first, but Gideon second. In the traditional voting system, those votes would have gone directly to Gideon.

If RCV is wrongly “blamed” for costing the Republicans a Senate seat, that is going to make it significantly more difficult to have well-informed public debates going forward about RCV. There is no reason to think RCV systematically favors one party or the other. In some races, in some states, there will be more third-party candidates from the left; in others, there will be more from the right.

Indeed, if Republicans lose badly in this election, the Republican Party will likely go through a period of internal factional conflict over which direction to take the party — which could easily lead to more candidates from the conservative side of the spectrum running for office as independent or under a third-party umbrella. In that context, the Republican Party would benefit from RCV.

Headline writers have the tricky task of coming up with concise leads that will draw readers in. These headlines will probably do that. Still, it’s troubling how much these narratives might affect public understanding about RCV.

Here are the headlines that prompted this post:

Voting System in Maine Threatens Collins in Final Days of Close Senate Race

Could Maine’s ranked-choice voting system cost Sen. Susan Collins?

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