Clear Ballot's vote tabulators (used in Lane and Multnomah Counties) can be adapted to run a STAR election with a simple software upgrade. Other vendors including Hart InterCivic have confirmed the same for their platforms.

 

STAR Voting Cost of Implementation

A number of people have asked about the cost implications of adopting STAR Voting. This article covers both the long and short-term financial advantages of implementing STAR Voting while taking a look at the components of the cost analysis.

Implementation costs will depend on a number of factors such as location, scale, and election details. Anyone wishing to host their own STAR election can currently do so at no cost using STAR Elections resources, or STAR Elections can be contracted for more involved or elections.

For municipal and governmental elections an election vendor should be contracted. Some costs, such as certification and an election software upgrade are one time only or upfront fixed expenses. Others, such as voter education, can vary widely and it is up to the jurisdiction to choose how much they would like to spend. The analysis below is based on research and estimates for Lane County, Eugene, Multnomah County, and Troutdale, Oregon, but can be referenced to inform a broader analysis.

 

Key Takeaways TL:DR:

  • STAR Voting generally does not require new voting machines.
  • A simple software upgrade and recertification are the only hard costs to budget for.
  • The main expense is generally the voter education itself. The Equal Vote Coalition has pledged to lead this effort and provide support to ensure that voter education is done right. Historically some jurisdictions have contributed significantly to voter education budgets, and others have left that education campaigns to reform advocates and non-profits. 
  • Eliminating the primary, even just for some races, comes with a significant cost savings which closely mirrors the amount that would be spent on the initial adoption. 
  • Eliminating the primary results in a much more affordable one-election-only campaign for the candidates, making elections more accessible and reducing the influence of money in politics.
  • Preference voting encourages more positive campaigns, and STAR voting elects less polarizing winners, resulting in better equitable representation and more effective governments in the long run.

Hard Numbers - TL:DR:

  • The most affordable vendor quote found for officiating STAR Voting for Eugene, OR elections was $21,530, not including certification or voter education. For a city the size of Portland, OR, with four times the population of Eugene the quote would be roughly $33,620.
  • Certification of new voting method software is expected to cost approximately $50,000. Note that recertification of election software upgrades is routine, is generally included in existing elections budgets, and would not necessarily represent an additional cost. 
  • The educational campaign for Approval Voting in its first election after being adopted by Fargo, ND, (which is slightly smaller than Eugene, OR) was roughly $35,000 dollars. 
  • The highest estimate to adopt STAR Voting for Eugene, OR elections was $200,000. This number was not based on expected costs for STAR and rather was based on the RCV budget set for Benton County, Oregon.
  • In 2021 Redondo Beach, California budgeted $150,000 for the potential adoption of STAR Voting, pending approval from the voters to do so. 
  • In cases where adopting STAR Voting allows for the elimination of the primary, even for some races only, switching to STAR Voting would shrink the election budget substantially. In the case of Lane County, cost savings from STAR Voting are estimated to be roughly $150,000 every two years. 
  • Switching to STAR Voting and a single election would cut the expected average cost to run for election almost in half for candidates in competitive races where a runoff election would have otherwise been required. Reducing the expected/average cost to run for office is one of the leading factors which has been shown to lead to more equitable and more representative election outcomes, and to reduce the impact of money in politics.

 

Implementation Timeline 

In 2017 our team sat down for an hour long, in depth meeting with Tim Scott, Director of Elections for Multnomah County. Mr Scott was confident that if Multnomah voted to adopt STAR Voting that the implementation costs would be able to be covered by the current election budget without requiring additional funding. He also expressed confidence that it could be implemented in one election cycle and would be ready to go by the next general election. In general, adopting STAR Voting for the first time would likely be a process which would be expected to take one year, but not more than two. This process can be expedited by letting your election vendors know in advance if there is a high likelihood that STAR Voting will be adopted be a certain jurisdiction. 

 

Upfront implementation costs paid for by the county:

Software Update: The election vendor for a given election will need to update their system to run STAR Voting. STAR Voting uses a 5 star ballot which is already commonly used in polling and surveys. Most modern voting machines or tabulators can already read a 5 star ballot, but would require a simple software upgrade to tally those ballots as votes. There are numerous election vendors which can be used and we will cover a couple options below:

ClearBallot:  Lane, Multnomah, and a number of Oregon counties use a system called ClearBallot to design, scan, and tally paper ballots, and while it doesn't support STAR "out of the box," we have checked with the software vendor who has indicated that a STAR voting ballot can be created and scanned using their system. The only missing piece is computing the winner using the rules of STAR Voting.

Using the "Cast Vote Record" output from ClearBallot, Equal Vote has developed an open source proof-of-concept vote counter in the Python programming language. The effort took our intrepid coder a full two hours to write and debug, and the final program was just 40 lines of computer code. This exercise has given us confidence that the software engineering costs will be minimal. When it comes time for the County to work with our software vendor to implement STAR, we have offered this proof-of-concept to help the county to understand the scope of the project and to determine if the eventual quote given is reasonable.

Hart InterCivic: Equal Vote met with Robert Millican, Product Manager of Applications & Services to discuss implementation of STAR Voting for Hart InterCivic in 2021. Mr Millican confirmed that STAR Voting addressed many of the concerns that they had with other voting reforms like RCV, and expressed interest in working to offer STAR Voting to jurisdictions looking to adopt the STAR method.

Gravic/Remark OMR: In the interest of keeping costs in check we have also reached out to other possible vendors so that competing bids can be compared. Gravic has provided a $21,530 quote for using their Remark OMR software for Eugene City Elections. Lane County Elections (which runs elections for the City of Eugene,) currently uses 4 scanners and this quote is based upon maintaining that capacity. The quote includes four licenses at $4,030, a customer utility which would take the ballot data and calculate both STAR and binary election results for $15,000, as well as an optional $2,000-2,500 if the City would like Remark to draft the ballot design. If the city would like to design the ballots Gravic would consult and then approve the final ballot design at no cost. In total, adopting Remark for Eugene or Lane County elections would represent $19,030 in fixed costs, plus certification. Adding in optional costs such as ballot design and software trainings, and 4 new scanners, Remark would still come in at under $22k.

Remark was used in a full scale pilot by the Democratic Party of Oregon to tabulate the STAR Voting paper ballots for the Presidential Delegate Elections and was selected as a top option by the Election Integrity Caucus research committee because it met all criteria for best practices, including open source software, independence from the internet, and other election security and user-interface criteria. Remark is compatible with modern scanners and computers and does not require proprietary hardware. Ultimately, the DPO used another platform, Simply Voting, for the officiation of this election in which voters were able to vote online or via vote by mail. 

STAR Elections: STAR Elections officiated the 2020 Independent Party of Oregon primary and the star.vote web app behind that election is open sourced, vetted, secure, and reliable. (Star.vote can also be used for informal polling and the public version of the site is the easiest option for those looking to give STAR Voting a quick test drive.)

Anyone wishing to host their own STAR election can currently do so at no cost using STAR Elections resources, or STAR Elections can be contracted for more involved or elections. For elections using paper ballots, options include hand counting or scanned ballots, and if desired, results can be tabulated using the STAR Elections tabulation spreadsheet. For those looking to host their own secure elections online, a STAR Voting Elections add-on allows Google Forms to run STAR Voting off the shelf.

For vendors looking to add STAR Voting code to their platforms, a number of open source templates and scripts exists in a number of languages which can be used for reference.

Certification: The most significant cost of adding STAR voting to an election vendor's system is the cost of certifying the software. ClearBallot’s Oregon representative has estimated the cost of re-certification to be approximately $50,000. Certification for a STAR Voting specific upgrade is a one time cost -at most- which would come from the county elections budget. Once a vendor is certified to run STAR Voting in one locality others which adopt STAR will not need to pay this fee again. Note that election vendors update software and re-certify on a regular basis anyways, so including STAR Voting code in an upcoming re-certification may or may not represent an additional cost beyond what was already covered in the election budget. This may be a point which could be negotiated.

 

Upfront implementation costs ideally shared by the jurisdiction adopting STAR, the reform campaign, and supporting nonprofits:

Voter Education: Adopting a new voting method requires an educational campaign to ensure that voters are comfortable with the new system and will trust the election results. This is an expense which historically has varied widely in terms of how much money is spent and who funds the education campaign. Fargo, North Dakota (which is slightly smaller that Eugene) was the first to use Approval Voting for city elections just this year. According to campaign manager Jed Limke, roughly $35k was spent on the educational campaign between the time when the initiative passed and the first election. Almost all of that was paid for by the campaign itself and by the Center For Election Science, an electoral reform non-profit, not by the city.

STAR Voting is a type of preference voting, like Ranked Choice Voting, and we recommend basing budgets for education campaigns on Ranked Choice efforts in areas with a similar population, then subtracting the value of resources outlined below which will be provided by Equal Vote.

The Equal Vote Coalition is committed to working to ensure that STAR Voting is implemented properly and voters understand how the system works and how to properly fill out their STAR ballots. The coalition’s multi-pronged plan will significantly mitigate the cost burden on the taxpayers. Here's our plan:

  1. Provide multi-lingual educational materials to the county for how STAR Voting works and how voters should be instructed to fill out the ballot. This will save the county the significant cost of starting from scratch when drafting their own explanatory statements for the ballot and voters' guide.
  2. Print and online materials and media. We plan to make video and print materials for voter education available through the STAR Voting and Equal Vote Coalition web sites and we will offer those same resources to the City or County directly as well at no charge.
  3. Provide clinics for political parties, and community organizations. We expect these groups will be on the "front lines," explaining how STAR works to their constituents. We plan to provide educational materials and templates, free of charge, to all local organizations.
  4. Provide candidate clinics for those running for office under the new system. Candidates running in the first round of STAR elections will be the true educators about how STAR works, and we expect that candidates will be the most effective advocates for thoughtful voting using the new system. The Equal Vote Coalition will provide these clinics free of charge.
  5. Press outreach. The Equal Vote Coalition is committed to advocating that our local media organizations - newspapers, TV stations, podcasts, radio shows, etc. are well-versed in the STAR system and we'll push them to report heavily on STAR in the form of public service announcements leading up to the first 2022 STAR vote.

These upfront costs are more than mitigated by the tangible and intangible long term savings outlined below.

 

Long Term Savings:

Election cost savings over time

According to the Oregon Secretary of State, the cost for recent elections (not counting money spent by candidates) is between $1.71 and $1.91 per voter. This includes printing, mailing and counting costs for the Oregon Vote By Mail system. Local non-partisan elections in most of Oregon, (including Eugene, Lane County, Portland, Multnomah County, and Troutdale,) currently use the Jungle Primary and Top 2 general election process, and City Council, County Commissioner, and Mayor races take place on the primary ballot, as well as a few others. Runoff elections are then held for these offices if no candidate receives a majority of the vote.

Current STAR Voting ballot initiatives would move these races to the general election via a charter amendment. The few remaining races, such as Judge and School Board elections, could be moved to the general election by ordinance, and doing so would improve the cost savings of STAR dramatically.

If all local nonpartisan races are run just a single time, in November, this would means that all nonpartisan and minor party voters need not receive ballots nor voter guides for what would be a primary only for major party affiliated voters. In Oregon this constitutes roughly 1/3 of Oregon voters, and unaffiliated and Independent voters are the largest single voting block. As of our latest voter registration statistics, 83,119 of Lane County's 254,589 voters are not affiliated with a major party. Using an average cost per voter of $1.81, this represents a potential savings of $150,445.39 for Lane County taxpayers, every two years.

These cost savings will be particularly significant if all races in a given county were to use STAR Voting, but even during the transition phase, when some races are using it and others are still considering switching over, there will be notable cost savings from reduced printing costs for both the ballot and the voter guide. For the ballot itself, cost savings will occur any time the ballot itself is reduced from three pages to two, or from two pages to one. For the voter guide, less candidates and races represent a savings, as does eliminating redundant costs from having some candidates listed in both the primary and general election voter guides.

Campaign finance and the influence of money in the political system

If no candidate wins outright in May in our current system, the top two candidates have to run another election in November, meaning they campaign for another six months and raise a ton more money, giving special interests even more of a hold on political outcomes. This fact was made clearly apparent by the races in Lane County in the 2018 election cycle. Joe Berney and Sid Leiken, who competed for the Springfield seat on the County Commission raised a combined total of $235,727.84 to compete in a single May election, while Heather Buch and Gary Williams, who had to compete twice in East Lane County, raised approximately twice as much money as their one-election counterparts.

When using STAR Voting for local nonpartisan offices, there is always just a single election in November. The benefit to city and county residents on the whole is enormous when hundreds of thousands of extra special interest influence dollars are not a part of the process.

 

STAR Voting: better outcomes, less expensive

When weighing new proposals, cost is a critical component. This analysis shows that, on the balance, STAR Voting is a sound investment which carries low cost risk upfront and is likely to provide significant savings over time, both to municipalities and taxpayers, and by reducing the influence of special interest money in the political process.