Voices & Choices

Keep it simple: Advice for polling ranked choice elections

Keep it simple: Advice for polling ranked choice elections

Ranked choice voting (RCV) is now a common feature of American political life, used in jurisdictions from coast to coast and likely to expand even further in 2020. That makes it increasingly important to know how to poll ranked choice elections well.

We at FairVote realize there is not yet a concise road map for polling RCV races, so we asked David Mermin of Lake Research Partners, who has conducted RCV polls for years, to give his advice. The takeaway?

“Don’t overthink it. Keep it simple.”

Mermin said that when conducting RCV polls, you don’t need to go into detail with respondents about how RCV elections are tabulated. In a jurisdiction where RCV is new, you should provide one sentence reminding voters that the system has been adopted. In jurisdictions where RCV has been used before, you get the most accurate results when you skip the explanation and just ask voters to give their preferences.

Each time you ask voters for a subsequent choice, you should read out all of the options on the list again, except for the options they have already ranked. If you accidentally re-list a name they have already ranked, the voter can become confused. Once a voter tells you they are undecided about a choice, don’t ask for their preferences below that choice.

Mermin advised that you should only ask voters to give their first choice, second choice, and possibly third choice if the candidates are well known. However, asking for choices beyond the third is seldom useful, because few voters have that many preferences in mind and many will decline to answer.

Once each voter has provided their preferences, you can take the data and run a simulation of the RCV election based on the rules in the jurisdiction you polled.

Lastly, Mermin advised that when reporting the results of an RCV poll to clients, you should lead with the first choice results because those tend to be most static in voters’ minds and are “the closest analogue” to other poll results. After reporting that, you can discuss how the second and third choices went and how those factor into the overall RCV simulation. 

Usually, second and third choices are more malleable in voters’ minds than first choices, so they are more likely to shift before election day. If the results of second choices are close, focus your reporting on the fact that they are close rather than harping on which candidate edged it out. You should “not over-claim anything about how definitive the simulation is.” 

“Like all polls, [an RCV poll is] a snapshot in time. It’s not a prediction. It’s a measure of where people are right now.” - David Mermin

We hope this advice will help those who poll RCV elections going forward and contribute to the conversation around mainstreaming RCV. FairVote Communications Director Ashley Houghton has previously offered guidance to media organizations on how to report RCV election results in a way that will make sense to citizens.


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