Updated 12/15/20 at 8:50 a.m. ET: The Electoral College voted 306-232 for Joe Biden on Dec. 14. We will now refer to Biden as President-elect.
Many media outlets, such as CBS, The Hill, and Reuters, have been referring to projected 2020 presidential election winner Joe Biden as the "President-elect," and Kamala Harris "Vice President-elect." Some, such as Voice of America, are calling Biden the "projected winner." Others including the Washington Examiner are referring to Biden as "presumptive president-elect" or "apparent president-elect." And still others, such as Newsmax and The Epoch Times, are not using any qualifiers, as a result of not being willing to call the election until all legal challenges are resolved.
As with many phraseologies, this is another polarizing issue, as the AllSides team discovered when we sat down with our multi-partisan Editorial Team, which contains people from the left, right, and center, to discuss what phrase we should use in our Headline Roundups.
This is not normally an issue, so why should it be now? Here is what is different this time:
- Votes are still being counted.
- One of the candidates has not yet conceded.
- There are pending lawsuits.
- The election is still close and could conceivably be changed, however unlikely, depending on the final court decisions.
- There is not consensus among the news media (though a strong majority of established media do agree).
- Calling or not calling Joe Biden "President-elect" has political and other implications this year that did not exist in the past.
In the interest of displaying perspectives across the spectrum, we think it’s important to spell out the arguments for and against each term. Here’s a quick summary of what was discussed at our meeting leading up to our own decision about the term we should use, and how different sides see things.
Arguments for Using the Term "Projected Winner"
- "President-elect" is not a technically accurate term, as the states and the Electoral College have not yet officially completed the legal process that is required to precede the election of a president. States have not yet certified the votes (meaning state governors have not yet prepared and sent documents known as Certificates of Ascertainment of the vote), and the Electoral College has not yet cast its votes. The more precise phrase "projected winner" also helps to educate people about how U.S. Presidents are actually elected.
- The Safe Harbor deadline of Dec. 8, 2020 has not yet been reached. This refers to U.S. Code (3 U.S.C. §5), and is the deadline by which there must be a final resolution of all election disputes, including court challenges. It is also the final date on which slates of electors must be chosen by states for submission to Congress. If disputes and court cases aren’t settled by then, Congress is under no obligation to accept the validity of electoral votes submitted by states, according to Law&Crime.
- Biden is projected to win, but multiple outstanding lawsuits about potential fraud exist in multiple states, and a recount is planned in Georgia. Whether or not you believe the lawsuits or recounts hold any weight, the possibility of change remains.
- Media outlets don’t officially call elections. The term "President-elect" makes it appear that media outlets hold official, legal weight in an area where they don’t. The legal process is not complete just because the media has declared a winner. Media outlets have been wrong before, such as when Newsweek declared Hillary Clinton the winner in 2016, media outlets declared Al Gore the winner of Florida (and thus the race) in 2000, and declared Gov. Thomas Dewey winner in 1948.
- Precedent: During the Bush-Gore election, many news outlets did not refer to Bush as "President-elect" even though he had won by every vote count and recount until the Supreme Court made its final ruling.
- Using the term "projected winner" is the most literal and neutral approach. Using it infers no subjective judgement about the importance of calling an election as soon as possible, nor on what narrative we favor (are concerns about voter fraud fake news or legitimate?), nor how much authority we should give established news media organizations (should they be the ones who decide when a candidate is now the "President-elect"?)
Arguments for Using the Term "President-elect"
- There is no good reason not to call Joe Biden "President-elect" unless you think Donald Trump’s recounts and lawsuits might change the election result. This is extremely unlikely, and even Trump’s inner circle has advised Trump to concede.
- Precedent: Media outlets have set a precedent in which the term "President-elect" typically refers to the candidate for whom victory appears statistically inevitable. The current Electoral College system, in which electors are incentivized to vote for the winner of their state, means that the media can usually accurately project the winner of the Electoral College based on state vote totals.
- It is irresponsible of the media to have evidence they deem sufficient to call an election and to then not refer to the winner as "President-elect," because it creates the space for people to persist in a false narrative and deny the democratic will of the American people.
- Trump’s narrative about voter fraud does not hold up to scrutiny. The voting system worked well, and even Trump’s DHS chief called it "the most secure election in U.S. history." At best, this is another example of right-wing misinformation. At worst, it is a deliberate and direct threat to democracy, and treating it as an equal side in a policy debate is grossly negligent.
- Not using "President-elect" allows Donald Trump to "play the ref," a decades-old political strategy where politicians make claims of bias to get journalists to give them special treatment. Indulging Trump now sets a bad precedent for future candidates.
- Naming Joe Biden "President-elect" increases certainty in the results, reduces the impact of unfounded accusations of voter fraud, and therefore increases confidence in our election system.
What will AllSides do? After lengthy discussion with people from the left to right on our team who did not ultimately agree, we decided to do the following:
- We will continue to post news articles from across the political spectrum, most of which, but not all, are currently referring to Joe Biden as "President-elect."
- For content and summaries that we write, for now we will refer to Biden as the "projected winner."
This was a tough decision, but ultimately we chose what we felt was the most accurate term. Merriam-Webster defines the term "president-elect" as "a person who has been elected president but who has not officially become president yet." The election is not yet fully concluded, so we are not describing Biden with this term yet.
It's important to note that our decision was not influenced by the terminology choices made by other media outlets, nor was it influenced by claims that the electoral process was manipulated to favor Biden.
This piece was written and reviewed by the AllSides editorial team, which includes people from the left, right and center.