Q: What's wrong with our current system?

A:



"Choose One Only" Voting (aka. "Plurality" or "First Past the Post") is universally regarded as the single worst voting system.  It works fine if and only if there are two candidates in the race, which is why it leads to a two party system.

If there more than two candidates in the race, Choose One Only Voting is extremely vulnerable to a phenomena called The Spoiler Effect. It consistently results in two party domination, and in order to avoid your vote being wasted there are very strong incentives to vote "Lesser Evil" if you aren't sure your favorite can win.

 

 

 

1.     The Spoiler Effect:

  • Choose One Only Voting is highly vulnerable to a phenomenon called the "Spoiler Effect,” also referred to as “Vote Splitting,” or the “Nader Effect.”

  • Because of the Spoiler Effect, Choose One Only Voting is wildly inaccurate when there are more than two candidates. Voter blocks who support more than one candidate can end up divided and conquered.

  • This creates a strong incentive to only vote for the “front-runners.” Voters in a majority can easily lose the election if they don't come together to strategically all vote for one candidate.

  • Choose One Only Voting gives a huge advantage to candidates who are deemed "viable" and puts voters who have more candidates on their side at a significant disadvantage.

2. Once we solve the spoiler effect, we don't need to have 2 elections:

  • Primaries generally have lower turnouts and unrepresentative voter demographics. In most cases, primaries bias in favor of older, whiter, and more wealthy voters.

  • Primary elections are designed to narrow the field, which restricts voter choice in the general election. When people feel like nobody on their ballot represents them, voter turnout suffers.

  • For jurisdictions which use a non-partisan primary and a top-two general election, the spoiler effect can be magnified by the large primary field. When this happens the primary election can actually advance two candidates from the minority faction, guaranteeing an unrepresentative winner in the general. 

  • This two-election process makes for a long campaign season, which is disliked by both voters and candidates. Longer campaign seasons advantage candidates with more money, especially those who can afford to take a year or sometimes more off of work while they campaign.

3.     Magnifying the influence of Money in Politics

  • To avoid the Spoiler Effect, voters are coerced into voting for the front-runner on their side who is most “viable.”

  • The most viable candidate is usually the one who raised the most money and the one with the backing of the media. This gives big money an undue influence over not only voter opinions, but also over voter behavior.

  • In order to be seen as viable, or "electable," candidates and politicians have to spend a huge amount of their time fundraising. In many cases this leaves them indebted to their donors, breeding corruption.

4.     Wasted Votes and Disenfranchised Voters

  • If you know that your favorite is a shoo-in, or that they don’t stand a chance, then it’s a safe bet that your vote won’t make a difference anyway. Together with the other issues listed above, many people choose not to vote at all because voting their conscience would be a wasted vote. 

Q: Can we use STAR Voting for Presidential elections?

A:

Yes. STAR Voting is is a nationally viable and scalable method which could be used for Presidential elections, either with the Electoral College or a National Popular Vote.

 

How Would STAR Voting Work for US Presidential Elections? 

Currently, presidential elections are run by each state with a partisan primary and then a general election between the top candidate from each qualifying party. Each state has a set number of electoral votes in the electoral collage, (based on the number of US congresspeople in each state,) and the candidate with over 270 votes wins. If no candidate receives 270 electoral votes the election is decided by the US Senate. Currently, all states in the USA except Nebraska and Maine are winner-take-all, meaning that the candidate who wins in that state gets all of that state's electors. Nebraska and Maine divide their electoral votes proportionately. 


With STAR Voting this would not change unless other reforms were passed in addition to STAR Voting.

  • In winner-take-all states, the STAR Voting winner would receive all of a states electoral votes.
  • In proportionate states like Maine and Nebraska, the electoral votes would be divided using the percentages received by each finalist in the STAR Voting runoff. 

 

How would the popular vote be counted with STAR Voting?

The popular vote in each state would be counted using the vote totals received by each finalist in the STAR Voting runoff. So if a state had 100,000 voters, and the runoff was 60% for candidate A and 39% for candidate B, and 1% no preference between the finalists, then the popular vote would be reported as 60,000 votes for A and 39,000 votes for B.

The total scores for all candidates would also be released, showing the amount of stars received by each in the scoring round. Each candidate's average rating would also be available as part of election results. 

 

How would STAR Voting work with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact? 

When the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) was drafted, no provisions were made and no clause was included which specifies how the popular vote would be counted in states which use alternative voting methods for the presidential general election. Because the NPVIC has already been signed by a number of states, it's too late to add this clause to the original compact. 

The founders of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact have since recommended that any state which adopts an alternative voting method sign on to another interstate compact which would specify how votes in these states would be summed with each-other and with choose-one Plurality votes from the rest of the country. 

Even states who do not plan to sign onto the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact should sign onto the Alternative Voting Interstate Compact in order to ensure that their votes would be counted correctly and fairly. If the the NPVIC goes into effect this will ensure that a votes from all states will be included in the national popular vote.

 

Alternative Voting Interstate Compact

Summary:

  • All states which adopt alternative voting methods would be encouraged to sign on to the Alternative Voting Methods Interstate Compact regardless of their National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) status. 
  • This compact would go into effect immediately, allowing national election results to publish vote totals consistently and accurately, including votes from states using alternative voting methods.
  • This compact does not change the way state electors to the electoral college are allocated, but does specify how alternative votes should be summed for states which may choose to assign their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.

Vote Calculation Process:

  1. Convert all ballots from each state to universal ballots using the "Universal Ballot Conversion."
    2. Sum the universal ballots from all states to find the top two popular vote getters nationally, described here as Candidates A and B. (This includes ballots from every state and every method.)
  2. Each state in the Alternative Voting Methods Compact would then determine the number of voters who had a preference for candidate A over B or vice versa as well as the number of voters who had no preference for either. 
  3. Assign votes from each state in the Alternative Voting Methods Compact to candidates A or B. These vote totals will be considered the popular vote totals for each state for the purposes of the NPVIC. 

Example: If a state had 100,000 voters, and if 60,000 of voters in the Alternative Vote Compact member states preferred candidate A, 39,000 preferred candidate B, and 1,000 had no preference between them or preferred neither, then the popular vote for that state would be reported as 60,000 votes for A and 39,000 votes for B. 

 

Why Count Votes As Proposed:

  • Ensures One Person, One Vote. Every voter in every state, regardless of voting method, has an equally weighted vote. Every vote’s power is worth one vote.
  • Ensures that voters in states which use alternative voting methods can safely vote for the candidates of their choice, regardless of those candidates national viability, without fear of wasting votes or an incentive to vote “lesser-evil.”
  • Ensures that states which adopt a voting method which eliminates vote-splitting and spoilers do not have their presidential votes split or spoiled in the process of compiling their votes with Plurality votes.
  • Would allow 3rd party or independent candidates to run and win (assuming they had the support needed,) without fear of being scapegoated as spoilers.
  • Prevents states in the Alternative Voting Methods Compact from collectively acting as a spoiler, throwing the election to a less preferred candidate or candidate who didn't win the popular vote.
  • Ensures that states in the Alternative Voting Methods Compact are never responsible for preventing any candidate from receiving 270 electoral college votes, which would result in Congress determining the winner of the Presidential Election instead of having the election decided by the voters. 

 

National Popular Vote Alternative Voting Methods Compact Universal Vote Conversion:

The Universal Ballot Conversion is used to convert all ballots from all voting methods into one standardized total which can be summed to find a universal ballot count total across states or jurisdictions using different voting methods. After conversion, regardless of the voting method used, a designation of the best possible ranking or rating shall always be worth 1 point and a designation of the worst possible rating or ranking shall always be worth 0 points. 

 

Click image above to read full text of this draft proposal. 



Note: This proposal is a coalition project and we are currently accepting feedback. If you have questions or concerns or would like to collaborate on this project please send an email to [email protected] and request a link to the draft doc.

Q: Does STAR Voting pass One-Person-One-Vote?

A:

Yes. In STAR Voting each ballot ultimately counts as one full vote.

STAR Voting perfectly complies with the legal definition of one-person-one-vote.

The U.S. Supreme Court has declared that equality of voting - one person, one vote - means that the weight and worth of the citizens' votes as nearly as is practicable must be the same. There are a few components to this, so we'll break it down further. 

 

1. Every vote cast must be equally powerful: In STAR Voting all ballot data is counted in both the scoring round and again in the automatic runoff. In the scoring round voters are instructed to give their favorite(s) 5 stars and to show their preference order and level of support for their candidates. All the stars given to each candidate are totaled, and the two highest scoring candidates advance to the automatic runoff. 

In the automatic runoff your ballot is your one vote, and your one full vote goes to the finalist you prefer. This ensures that no matter how much or how little you liked the finalists, your vote is just as powerful as everyone else's.

For example: Lets say that none of your favorites made it to the runoff and it comes down to your worst case scenario (zero stars) vs a mediocre candidate (two stars.) Your full vote goes to your two star candidate. This is just like voting in a primary, having your favorites not win, and then voting again in the general election for the finalist you prefer. 

Some people get confused and think that in the runoff if you only gave your preferred candidate two stars that your runoff vote would be less powerful than someone who gave their favorite five stars. Rest assured. That's not how it works. 

 

2. Every vote cast must be counted in the deciding round: In STAR Voting all ballots are counted in the deciding round and every ballot carries equal weight in the runoff, regardless of the scores given. The runoff is binary. Your vote goes to the finalist you prefer, and the finalist with the most votes wins - Just like a Top-Two general election. 

As long as you have a preference between the finalists, your vote will go to the finalist you preferred. Voters who don't have a preference between the finalists (for example if you gave both finalists three stars,) will still have their scores all counted, and their runoff vote counted as a vote-of-no-preference between the two finalists. 

Contrast this with Ranked Choice Voting (RCV,) specifically the Instant Runoff Voting version that is most widely adopted. In RCV, many of the rankings which voters put down on their ballots will never be counted, and many of the ballots will end up not being counted in the deciding round of tabulation. On average over 10% of RCV ballots are "exhausted" meaning they can not be counted in the deciding round, even if these ballots could have made a difference if they had been fully counted. Learn more about the ways that RCV wastes votes here

 

3. The system must ensure an equally weighted vote, the legal definition of One-Person-One-Vote, and not mathematically advantage or disadvantage specific factions. 

In a 1965 Voting Rights Act ruling on gerrymandering, The U.S. Supreme Court declared that equality of voting - one person, one vote - means that the "weight and worth of the citizens' votes as nearly as is practicable must be the same." This has profound implications on voting methods which suffer from vote-splitting, including Choose-One Plurality, and Ranked Choice Voting. 

In a gerrymandered election a faction that had a majority can find themselves unable to win due to gerrymandered districting. The result is that the faction of voters targeted by gerrymandering has votes which are mathematically less powerful than voters on the other side. 

This exact same thing can happen in voting methods like Plurality Voting and RCV even if the districting is done fairly. In this case the mechanism putting voters at a disadvantage is vote-splitting, not gerrymandering, but the impact is the same. When vote-splitting occurs, a majority coalition or faction who runs more candidates than the other side risks splitting their factions support. This phenomena is known as the "Spoiler Effect" and it can result in electing a candidate who was opposed by a majority of voters. 

The astute reader may have noticed that the Supreme Court gave themselves an out with the "as nearly as is practicable" clause, and at the time of this ruling no voting method in use had ever delivered an equal vote, but that changed in 2020 when Approval Voting was first adopted for municipal elections. Many voting methods including Approval, Condorcet, and STAR Voting eliminate vote-splitting by allowing a coalition of voters to show that they would prefer any of the candidates on their side over the opposition. These voting methods ensure that every voter can cast an equally weighted vote as required by One-Person-One-Vote, and as a result these methods produce more accurate, fair and representative outcomes in competitive races with larger fields of candidates. 

 

Q: Isn't scoring subjective? What if some voters are "easier graders" than others?

A:

The idea that voters are subjectively “grading” the candidates in STAR Voting is not quite correct. In STAR, voters offer an objective level of support from 0 (no support) to 5 (maximum support) to each candidate. These support levels are then added up for all of the candidates to determine the two most broadly supported candidates overall. It is up to each voter to decide how much or how little support to offer each candidate. If a voter strongly prefers one candidate over the rest of the field, this can be shown on the ballot; likewise if a voter wants to support several candidates, that can be shown as well. Every voter has an equal, full range of expression about each candidate.

Q: Is this the same as Ranked Choice Voting?

A:
  • Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) technically refers to a family of voting systems that use voter's rankings to determine the winner. Instant Runoff Voting is the most common RCV system in use today. Because STAR Voting actually uses the ranking derived from scores to make the final runoff decision, it is arguably an RCV system, but it is not at all the same as Instant Runoff Voting. STAR is similar to IRV in that voters can show relative preferences between candidates, but there are important differences. For example:
  • With STAR Voting you can show that you like two candidates equally; with IRV you would have to rank one over the other.
  • In STAR Voting everyone's full ballot is counted; in IRV your down ballot rankings may never be counted, depending on the order of elimination.
  • In STAR Voting there is only one automatic or "instant" runoff; with Instant Runoff Voting there can potentially be many instant runoffs.

Q: Is STAR Voting vulnerable to strategic voting?

A:
  • With STAR Voting honesty is the best policy. The best strategy is to give your favorite or favorites a full 5 stars and to use your scores to show your preferences between the other candidates.
  • While there are some hypothetical scenarios where you might get an edge by putting down higher or lower scores for various candidates, in practice there is no way to know when this might help and when it would hurt. This kind of dishonest voting is more likely to backfire so it’s not a good strategy.
  • You can read a more technical comparison of strategic incentives in various systems here.

Q: Has STAR Voting been used for elections before?

A:

Yes! 

  • STAR Voting was used in the 2020 Independent Party of Oregon primary for Secretary of State and State Treasurer, as well as in a presidential preference poll.
  • The Democratic Party of Oregon is using it to elect Oregon's presidential delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
  • It is being used for all internal elections for the Multnomah County Democrats.

For more information, check out our Elections Case Studies page.

  • Additionally, STAR Voting has been tested in small groups and computer simulations of various election scenarios and has performed very well.  http://star.vote lets you easily set up a STAR Voting election or vote in existing polls. Check it out!
  • We see this as a pivotal moment for Oregon to pioneer a new path in voting reform, just as Oregon was a pioneer in adopting the initiative and referendum a hundred years ago, and more recently in nation-leading reforms like vote-by-mail and automatic voter registration.

Q: Wouldn't I want to "bury" a strong second choice and give a higher score to a weaker opponent to help my favorite win?

A:

"Burying" is where you promote an electorally weak third choice candidate over a electorally strong second choice, in the hopes that will help your first choice candidate win against your weak third choice.

Here’s the problem with that in STAR Voting: if you think your first choice can’t win head-to-head in the runoff against your second choice, that means you think your favorite is vying for the second seat in the runoff. In that case the worst thing you can do is add points to a candidate you like less than both your first and second favorites. If you aren’t sure your favorite has a shot at the runoff, you’re very likely to give your strong second choice at least one point. Adding any support to a less preferred candidate in this scenario simply increases the likelihood your own favorite will be squeezed out and that your runoff vote will go to someone you really don't like.

Fundamentally, for the "burying" tactic to work, voters from opposing factions have to gang up on a well-liked consensus candidate by supporting the opponent they really don't like higher on the ballot than their true second choice. But if either of those factions actually believe that the opposing faction is going to adopt this strategy, their own best play is to simply vote honestly in order to give their own favorite the best chance of winning against the (now diminished) consensus choice. For "burying" to work in STAR, voters of true opponents must work together to be dishonest on their ballots, yet if one faction decides to be honest instead, the honest faction will gain the significant upper hand.

Conclusion: "burying" is not a viable tactic in STAR Voting.

Q: Would STAR Voting cost money or save money?

A:
  • Both. There would be some initial costs associated with educating voters and reprogramming vote tabulation computers, but in the long run STAR Voting would save money by eliminating the primary election for local offices.
  • The shorter election season would reduce the amount of money required for candidates to run a successful campaign. This should make running for office more accessible for candidates without big money backers.

Q: How are ties in STAR Voting broken?

A:

Tie votes in STAR Voting are rare -over 10 times less common than with choose-one voting- but as with any voting method they can occur, especially in small demos or elections without many voters.


The body hosting an election is responsible to establish fair tie-breaking protocols

As with any election, the key to fair tiebreakers is to:

  • Set protocols in stone before the election!
  • Cap complexity as needed.
  • If complexity is not an issue, pick a set of protocols that are more determinative.

We recommend the tie breaking protocols spelled out below in the order listed below.

 

In most cases, what appear to be ties in STAR voting can be broken by referring back to the ballots themselves:

  1. Ties in the Runoff round should be broken in favor of the candidate who was scored higher if possible.
  2. Ties in the Scoring round should be broken in favor of the candidate who was preferred head-to-head by more voters.
  3. Multi-candidate ties in either round are broken in favor of the Condorcet winner if one exists, and can also be narrowed down by eliminating any Condorcet losers. The info needed to do this is present in the preference matrix for the election. (See below.)
  4. In the event that the above protocols do not break a tie, ties may be broken in favor of the candidate who won more of the head-to-head match-ups between tied candidates. Failing that, ties can be broken in favor of a candidate who was preferred by more voters across all head-to-head match-ups between the tied candidates.
  5. Ties which can not be broken as above are considered a "True Tie."

 

True Ties in STAR Voting

A true tie in STAR Voting is a tie where after referring back to the ballots themselves, there's no way to determine if one candidate or another is the stronger choice. With STAR Voting a true tie is a tie where there is no candidate who is higher scoring, where there is no candidate who was more or less preferred, and where there are no candidates who were less preferred who can be eliminated.

If you are hosting your election online or with one of many Equal Vote approved tools, ties will be broken for you automatically when possible.

 

Q: What is a preference matrix and how do I read one?

A: A preference matrix is a chart which shows all the data from a given election. Unless you are doing a hand count, a matrix can be generated automatically and will usually be available with your election results, depending on the platform.

A preference matrix is a great reference point for looking at the additional data which can be gleaned in STAR elections. In most elections a full matrix isn't needed. All that is needed to select the winner is to determine the preferences between the two highest scoring candidates. When an election is tabulated electronically the full preference matrix is generated automatically.

 

Q: When might I need a matrix and why?

In the event of ties, the full set of voter preferences shown in the matrix can often be used to break ties in favor of the more preferred candidate.

When ballots are not all tallied centrally, creating of matrix for each sub-set of ballots allows each set to be fully tallied on site and then be compiled later. This is a feature known as precinct summability, and it means that with STAR Voting local audits and recounts are possible if needed. Summability is an important requirement for election security and integrity. STAR Voting and most voting methods are summable, but Instant Runoff voting, the type of Ranked Choice widely used around the world is not.

Preference matrices provide a lot more information beyond who won and lost, so they are often used in data analysis. One advantage of STAR Voting over choose-one is that all of this information is available.




Creating a preference matrix by hand is just like tallying a STAR election, but with an extra runoff for each pair of candidates:

  • Total the scores given to each candidate in the election.
  • Just like in the STAR runoff, the two highest scoring candidates are selected. Sort the ballots to find how many voters preferred each of those finalists. Ballots are sorted into three stacks: Ballots preferring one finalist, ballots preferring the other, and ballots who gave both the same score and thus have no preference between those two. If you are doing a hand count you will have found your winner and can stop here. In the example below Alison won with 89 points. She was preferred by 8 out of 10 voters, or 80%.
  • To create a full preference matrix, repeat the step above for each pair of candidates.

 

Q: What if two or more candidates are tied for 2nd highest scoring candidate in the scoring round?

A: Take the tied candidates and compare them head-to-head with each other. If one is preferred by more voters, they should advance to the runoff. If needed you can also compare them each head-to-head against the highest scoring candidate.

 

In this election Bill and Carmen are tied for 2nd highest scoring candidate with 32 stars each. Looking at the preference matrix we can determine that Bill is preferred over Carmen, so this is not a true tie. Bill advances to the runoff. 

In the runoff, we find that Allison and Bill are both preferred by the same number of voters, 5 each, but looking at the scores we find that Allison was scored higher overall. Allison wins the election. 

 

Q: What if three or more candidates are tied for highest scoring candidate in the scoring round?

A: Take each candidate and compare them head-to-head with the others in the tie. This is known as a Condorcet method. (See below.) The two most preferred candidates advance to the runoff and the candidate preferred by more voters wins. If none of these candidates are preferred by more voters it's a true tie. 

 

Q: What is a Condorcet winner?

A: A Condorcet winner is one who in head-to-head match-ups was preferred over all others candidates. Finding Condorcet winners is helpful for breaking 3 way ties or ties with even more candidates if needed. If one candidate was preferred over all others they win the tiebreaker.

In the context of a 0-5 star ballot we determine which candidate was preferred by counting which candidate was scored higher on more ballots, just like in the STAR runoff. It's also essentially the same as a choose-one plurality election if there are only two candidates. Each ballot is one vote and the candidate with more votes wins.

 

Q: What is a Condorcet loser?

A: A Condorcet loser is a candidate who was not preferred over any of the others.  In the event that you are trying to find two candidates to advance to the runoff and there is no Condorcet winner, you can at least eliminate any Condorcet losers.

 

Q: How do I compare candidates head-to-head and find Condorcet winners or losers?

A: You can use a preference matrix to quickly compare any two candidates head-to-head.






In this election Allison is preferred head-to-head over all other candidates, which makes her the Condorcet winner. Doug is not preferred over any of the others, so he is the Condorcet loser. If Doug was eliminated, then Bill would become the new Condorcet loser.



Note: STAR Voting usually elects the Condorcet winner if there is one. If STAR elects a different winner, it's because a Condorcet winner only takes into account preference order but doesn't take into account the strength of support (total score) for the candidates.  

STAR Voting finds winners by maximizing both strength of support and number of supporters.

 

Q: What do you do if there is a true tie?

A: True ties can happen in any voting method, so it is critical to set up a protocol for this in advance and agree upon it. Most organizations which run elections have a protocol in place in their bylaws or charter.

True ties can be broken by random selection.

 


In this election, Allison, Bill, Carmen, and Doug are all tied for highest scoring with 78 stars each. Looking at the preference matrix we find that there is a Condorcet cycle as well! Allison is preferred to Bill, Bill to Carmen, and Carmen to Allison. 

A close look also reveals that Doug is not preferred by anyone, Doug is a Condorcet loser and can be eliminated. This election is a three way tie between candidates Allison, Bill, and Carmen. 

True ties in elections should be resolved by a tie-breaker chosen and agreed to in advance. Many organizations use a random method like a coin toss. If complexity is not an issue we recommend using another voting method which can process 0-5 star ballots such as Minimax to break the ties.

If you are running an election and have additional questions or would like guidance please email us at [email protected]

Q: Is STAR Voting committed to open sourced implementation?

A:

The STAR Voting project, STAR Elections, and the Equal Vote Coalition are 100% committed to open sourced elections, and all of our implementation and tabulation tools are open sourced. As largely volunteer driven organizations our resources are all designed and built collaboratively, transparently, and accessibly.

If you are interested in contributing to any aspect of the STAR Voting project please reach out to [email protected], join our Slack, plug in with the tech team, and get involved.

Q: Are STAR Voting elections secure?

A:

Yes. Any election can be tallied following best practices for elections security and fully audited. STAR Voting is not only transparent and secure when officiated well, but unlike some other voting methods it is also compatible with best practices in auditing and election integrity. Unlike some other alternative voting methods, STAR Voting doesn't require centralized tabulation of ballots. 

 

Is STAR Voting precinct summable?

Yes, in STAR Voting, any subset of ballots can be independently tallied, and then those ballot sets can be added together without changing the winner. This means that if an election was run statewide, any precinct within that state could independently process and tally their own ballots. This also means that vote tabulation can begin and can proceed unobstructed as soon as votes start to come in.

While tallying STAR ballots is a bit more involved than tallying a Choose-One Plurality election, there is no need to wait until all ballots are in hand or until the Scoring Round tally is complete before beginning to tabulate the Automatic Runoff.

On election day, precinct summability is important because it means that preliminary results can be shared as soon as they are available, during the tally, in real time, just like they are with Choose-One Plurality voting. To see how STAR Voting results can update in real-time, click the "show results" button on any live poll on the star.vote website.

For STAR Voting, a precinct sum or tally includes the total score for each candidate and the number of voters who preferred each candidate. Head-to-head pairwise preferences are generally displayed as a preference matrix. 

Most voting methods are precinct summable, including Choose-One Plurality voting, Score Voting, Condorcet voting, and Approval voting, but it's worth noting that Ranked Choice Voting (Instant Runoff Voting) is not summable. Due to the fact that not all rankings will ultimately be tallied, in Ranked Choice Voting a preference matrix is not sufficient for summing ballots and election officials must track the preferences on each unique ballot.

 

A note on Risk-Limiting-Audits and recounts:

For small scale non-governmental elections, full recounts are a simple option. When paired with other election integrity best practices, full recounts are always the most thorough way to verify the integrity of an election, especially if an error or foul-play is expected.

Audits and recounts are an important part of election integrity best practices, and every election should have a plan in place for this, but full recounts can be time consuming and expensive, especially for large, governmental elections. Risk limiting audits for STAR Voting are a sufficiently accurate and reliable method for doing partial recounts as needed to confirm an election's validity.

Risk limiting audits, or (RLA)s, prescribe a number of ballots to be recounted depending on the margin of victory. If a race is won decisively, then an audit will look at a small fraction of ballots, but if the margin is smaller, a larger recount is prescribed. If the RLA finds that the audit results are consistent with the reported election outcome, or if the margin of error is within expected limits, the election is certified. If the evidence from the initial sample does not provide enough evidence to meet the risk limit, the sample size is expanded until it does.

Risk Limiting Audits for STAR Voting can be done using the same tools and similar protocols as are used for plurality voting. For more information on how to conduct a STAR Voting Risk Limiting Audit, click here

Risk Limiting Audits are possible for most voting methods, including Choose-One Plurality voting, Score Voting, and Approval voting, but it's worth noting that while it they may be technically possible for Ranked Choice Voting (Instant Runoff Voting,) the complexity of the process, the existence of exhausted ballots, and the fact that not all ballot data is counted in RCV may present serious barriers for the real world use of RCV RLA's in practice. Procedures for efficient audits of Single Transferable Vote are still in the research phase. 

Q: Why is a blank counted as a zero?

A:

Some people ask us why we don't just ignore blanks entirely and then advance the two candidates with the highest average scores to the runoff.

In STAR Voting, blanks are counted as zeros and the two highest scoring candidates advance to the runoff. This ensures that voter intent is preserved and ensures that the voting method is not giving an unfair or unintended advantage to less well known candidates.

The five star ballot and the STAR Voting rules are designed specifically to ensure that voters' votes will count the way the voter intended them to, by helping the candidates who voters explicitly chose to support beat out the voter's less preferred candidates. 

For the purpose of determining the finalists who advance to the runoff, if a blank was not counted as a zero, and if the average score was used instead of the total score for each candidate, then the system would give relatively unknown candidates with a few strong supporters an unfair advantage over well known candidates with a much stronger supporter base. This is why blanks in STAR Voting are always explicitly counted as zeros.

For the purpose of post-election data analysis, the number of candidates left blank, vs those explicitly bubbled in as a 0 does provide some additional data that could be interesting for campaigns, and could be publish after the election is certified as part of the full election ballot data. 

Q: Are STAR Voting ballots "summable," or do they require centralized tabulation?

A:

What is "Summability"?

In an election, if you can tally any subset of the ballots separately and then add those sub-totals together to get the correct winner, the voting method is considered "summable." This is a key criteria that is required in order to allow ballots to be tallied (and audited) at the local or precinct level without having to be centralized in one location first. It's also key to ensuring that election officials can begin reporting preliminary results as ballots come in, without having to wait until all ballots are in hand. 

In most elections, ballots are tallied at the county level in batches, and results are reported by precinct. For this reason, summability is often referred to as "precinct summability."

For voting methods which are not summable, like Instant Runoff Voting (often referred to as Ranked Choice Voting or RCV), all ballots, or all ballot data must be centralized and then tallied together. Tallying and reporting meaningful results of any subset of ballots is impossible, as breaking the ballots into sets could distort the results by changing the order of candidate elimination or selection. 

 

Is STAR Voting Precinct Summable? 

Yes. STAR voting is tallied in two rounds so it is a bit more involved than Choose-One Plurality election, but there is no need to wait until all ballots are in hand or until the Scoring Round tally is complete before tabulating the runoff votes. For STAR Voting, a precinct sum includes the total score for each candidate and also the number of voters who preferred each candidate over each other candidate. These preliminary results are recorded on a preference matrix.

 

Why is Precinct Summability so important? 

On election day, precinct summability is important because it means that preliminary results can be shared as soon as they are available during the tally, in real time, just like they are with Choose-One Plurality voting. To see how STAR Voting results can update in real-time, click the "show results" button on any live poll on the star.vote website. The ability to display preliminary election results in real time is a key component of a transparent election in which voters understand how their voting method works and how their votes are counted.

Precinct summability is also a key component of secure elections and election integrity, whether an election is using paper or electronic ballots. When paper ballots can be scanned and tallied at the local level, a good chain of custody of those ballots is easy to maintain and easy to verify with security cameras, independent observers, and all the best practices for election integrity. For electronic ballots, the ballot data can be tallied and recorded at the local level as well, and ballot data doesn't need to be sent over the internet or transported from one elections site to another manually. 

For elections which span multiple jurisdictions, like city elections that span county lines, or federal elections which span state lines, voting methods must be summable to comply with election laws that generally specify that ballots are counted at the county level. 

 

Precinct summability is a key component of election auditability. 

Election recounts are best conducted at the local level. Local results by precinct are the first line of defense for finding any discrepancies or errors that may occur. Recounts are generally called for by a candidate who feels that the election results do not match the outcomes that their campaign was expecting. A precinct level result that is unexpected is often the catalyst for a recount or an audit. While election tabulation errors are rare, they can happen, as we saw recently in the 2021 New York City mayoral race using Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), where candidate Eric Adams sounded the alarm that reported vote numbers seemed off. His suspicions were later confirmed and it was discovered that 130 thousand test ballots had been added to the count. 

Unfortunately, due to the huge costs, election recounts are extremely rare and generally considered cost prohibitive. For this reason, Risk-Limiting Audits are now the gold standard for cost effective and accurate auditing protocols. A Risk-Limiting Audit is a technique that allows an accurate partial recount to be conducted. Depending on how close the election was, a specific percentage of ballots will be recounted to corroborate the election results. If the sample results don't match the official results then more ballots are recounted. This process can be repeated until the election results are confirmed within a reasonable doubt, or until a full recount has been conducted if needed. 

 

What voting methods are not Precinct Summable and which are? 

Most single-winner and multi-winner bloc voting methods are precinct summable, including Choose-One Plurality voting, STAR Voting, Score Voting, Condorcet voting, and Approval voting. 

Summability for Proportional Representation methods is generally more complex, and in some cases may be impossible.

Proportional STAR Voting, and most other methods which have summable single-winner versions are not considered "summable" in general, but summing ballots may still technically be possible if the number of seats up for election is low enough. Summability for Proportional Approval Voting is likely a viable option. Summability for Proportional STAR Voting is more complex but may be logistically viable for races with only two or three winners. Summability for proportional methods is highly technical, but you can learn more about it here

Ranked Choice Voting (specifically the Instant Runoff version that's in use widely and is the focus of most advocacy) is not summable no matter how many winners an election has. In RCV, ballots or ballot data needs to be centralized in one location, and all ballots need to be in hand before the elimination rounds can proceed. This often results in very long delays from voting day until election results can be reported, especially if absentee ballots will be accepted if they are mailed by election day.

Due to the fact that not all rankings will ultimately be tallied, in Ranked Choice Voting its not enough to know how many voters ranked each candidate at one level. This is because not all rankings will ultimately counted, and the election needs to track which specific ballot a ranking came from in order to know who that vote should transfer to as the ballots are processed through the candidate elimination rounds. 

 

Q: What is a preference matrix?

A:

A preference matrix is a chart which shows all the data from a given election. Unless you are doing a hand count, a matrix can be generated automatically and will usually be available with your election results, depending on the platform.

A preference matrix is a great reference point for looking at the additional data which can be gleaned in STAR elections. In most elections a full matrix isn't needed. All that is needed to select the winner is to determine the preferences between the two highest scoring candidates. When an election is tabulated electronically the full preference matrix is generated automatically.

 

When might I need a matrix and why?

In the event of ties, the full set of voter preferences shown in the matrix can often be used to break ties in favor of the more preferred candidate.

When ballots are not all tallied centrally, creating of matrix for each sub-set of ballots allows each set to be fully tallied on site and then be compiled later. This is a feature known as precinct summability, and it means that with STAR Voting local audits and recounts are possible if needed. Summability is an important requirement for election security and integrity. STAR Voting and most voting methods are summable, but Instant Runoff voting, the type of Ranked Choice widely used around the world is not.

Preference matrices provide a lot more information beyond who won and lost, so they are often used in data analysis. One advantage of STAR Voting over choose-one is that all of this information is available.




Creating a preference matrix by hand is just like tallying a STAR election, but with an extra runoff for each pair of candidates:

  • Total the scores given to each candidate in the election.
  • Just like in the STAR runoff, the two highest scoring candidates are selected. Sort the ballots to find how many voters preferred each of those finalists. Ballots are sorted into three stacks: Ballots preferring one finalist, ballots preferring the other, and ballots who gave both the same score and thus have no preference between those two. If you are doing a hand count you will have found your winner and can stop here. In the example below Alison won with 89 points. She was preferred by 8 out of 10 voters, or 80%.
  • To create a full preference matrix, repeat the step above for each pair of candidates.

 

Q: Wasted Votes: What's the difference between an exhausted ballot in RCV and a vote of no-preference in STAR?

A:
  • An exhausted ballot in RCV is NOT COUNTED in the deciding round, even if it could have made a difference.
  • A vote of no-preference in STAR Voting's automatic runoff round IS COUNTED and the voter intent, to support or oppose both finalists equally, was respected. 

 

It all comes down to voter intent. Voter intent should not be corrupted by the system. The system should count your vote and it should be able to make a difference if possible and help you gain representation, but in Ranked Choice Voting that's not necessarily the case. This can often be traced back to the fact that the RCV algorithm doesn't count most of the rankings voters put down on their ballots. Which of your rankings will be counted and which will not depends on the order of elimination. As a result, it may not be safe to vote for your favorite in RCV, just like with traditional Choose-One Voting. Worse, in some cases, voting your conscience can actually backfire, resulting in a worse outcome than if you hadn't voted at all in RCV. 

Voters in any system can chose to vote in a way that's not as effective as it could have been, but the STAR Voting system won't waste the vote of a voter who showed up and voted their conscience and your vote will never backfire. It's also next to impossible for an inexperienced voter to accidentally waste their vote in STAR Voting. 

There are a number of different ways a vote can be wasted. Let's break it down:
  1. Wasted Vote: Spoiled Ballots. A voided ballot which is thrown out due to voter error. Spoiled ballots are much more common in RCV than in traditional Choose-One Voting and are highest for lower-income voters and historically marginalized communities. In RCV, equal rankings, skipped rankings, and double rankings are all examples of ballots errors. In STAR Voting, equal scores and skipped scores are allowed, and with protocols in place to cover the scenario where a voter fills in too many bubbles, it becomes almost impossible to accidentally void your ballot.



  2. Wasted Vote: Lazy voting. A vote that can’t transfer or doesn't make a difference in the runoff because the voter wasn’t as expressive as they should have been and didn’t show preference order between the finalists when they actually did have a preference. This voter behavior can happen in RCV or STAR, but it's only problematic if the voter actually had a more nuanced opinion. It's impossible to tell if a bullet voter was being intentional or lazy from looking at the ballot alone and it's worth noting that a bullet vote is not necessarily a strategic vote, though the word is often used that way. 

    According to FairVote as of 2021 'bullet voting' rates in RCV average 32% and vary widely based on the election circumstances with more polarized voters being the most likely to bullet vote. In STAR Voting, election data available to date shows much lower rates of bullet voting but similar trends as to who bullet votes and why. 



  3. Wasted Vote: Ballot Limitations. A vote that couldn’t transfer because the voter wasn’t allowed to rank enough candidates in RCV. Most RCV elections limit voters to only ranking a certain number of candidates. In NYC it's 5. (3, 4, 5, or 10 are common.) A voter who doesn't like the finalists may not be able to rank the finalists at all unless they strategically rank them higher than they deserve. In STAR Voting, voters are always allowed to rate as many candidates as they want to support.


  4. Wasted Votes: False Majority. In RCV, tabulation stops when a candidate is the top choice on a majority of remaining ballots, even if there was another candidate who was actually preferred on even more ballots. In RCV only a fraction of the rankings voters put down are actually counted, and it's possible that if the rest of the ballot data was considered that another candidate had an even larger majority.

    In STAR Voting all ballot data is counted. In the scoring round all scores are totaled, and in the runoff every ballot counts as one vote. In STAR Voting the winner is the finalist who was preferred by a majority of voters who had a preference between those two. 



  5. Wasted Votes: Order of elimination and incomplete tabulation. In RCV, a voter's other candidates may be eliminated before their first choice, so that by the time their favorite is eliminated the vote may have nowhere to transfer to. This is called an exhausted ballot and these ballots are not counted in the deciding round of the election. On average in competitive RCV elections over 10% of ballots are exhausted. In some cases, the eliminated candidate may have actually been the candidate preferred over all others, but because RCV doesn't count most of the rankings voters put down, it can fail to elect the most popular candidate.

    Compare these uncounted exhausted ballots in RCV to a vote of no-preference in STAR Voting, where a voter explicitly chose to score both finalists equally. These votes are counted and do make a difference to help advance the candidates who were more preferred. Allowing voters to give equal scores in STAR is the key to preventing spoiled ballots, and it's also key for eliminating vote-splitting between similar candidates and maintaining election accuracy in larger fields of candidates.  

NOTE: For simplicity's sake, we are referring to single-winner elections above, but the same trends in STAR Voting and Ranked Choice Voting hold if we were to talk about Proportional STAR Voting and Single Transferable Vote, the proportional versions of both methods.

NOTE: In this article we are using the common meaning of a "wasted vote" for voters, "Don't waste your vote! Vote for So-And-So." In this sense a vote is wasted if it's unable to make a difference when it otherwise could have, or if the system itself is not counting a vote. Whether or not wasted votes are numerous enough to throw an election and change the winner, wasted votes leave voters feeling powerless, disenfranchised, and they are a leading reason many people cite for not voting at all. In the USA almost 50% of voters don't vote.

The term wasted vote is also used in another sense in discussions about gerrymandering or proportional representation. In that sense, in a given election the term "wasted votes" refers to the number of voters who did not vote for the winner and who may be left feeling unrepresented, even if their vote was counted and did make as much of a difference as it could have. 

Q: Will voters bullet vote with STAR Voting?

A:

STAR Voting has not demonstrated high or problematic levels of bullet voting. Across the thousands of elections and polls held with STAR, the trend is that the vast majority of voters do vote expressively, scoring multiple candidates. The data shows clear trends that, as you would expect, voters who have multiple candidates on their side are more likely to score multiple candidates than voters who actually only do have one candidate they support.

 

Bullet voting can be honest voting:

The fact is, some voters only like one candidate. For these people a 'bullet vote' is an honest vote. The key is to ensure that voters who do have a more nuanced opinion are empowered and encouraged to vote more expressively, and STAR Voting does this.

In some elections there may be one faction that runs only one candidate while other faction(s) run multiple candidates. These lopsided elections are the most vulnerable to vote-splitting and spoilers and STAR Voting does a great job of preventing spoiled elections even under these kinds of stress tests by allowing voters to support all the candidates they prefer.

The Independent Party of Oregon 2020 primary election, which used STAR for the first time, was one such example. Close to 1/2 the voters leaned Republican (based on their 1st choice votes) and in all three races there was only one Republican candidate, whereas there were multiple left candidates in all three races. As expected, many Republican voters gave 5 to the Republican and 0s to the others. On the left, which ran more candidates, most voters were much more expressive, showing which Democrat or Progressive they preferred and who else they supported. In all three of these elections the STAR winner was both the Condorcet winner (preferred over all others) and the highest scoring candidate, so there is no doubt that even in these types of difficult scenarios, STAR Voting was able to elect the correct winners and avoid spoiled elections. 

 

How does STAR Voting compare to Ranked Choice Voting in regard to bullet voting?

Both STAR Voting and Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) do a good job of encouraging voters to be expressive and in both systems bullet voting is not a viable or effective strategy. This is because both STAR and RCV are preference voting methods with an instant runoff. In this sense they have a lot in common. 

In this FairVote* article they cite the fact that the average/median amount of bullet voting in RCV elections is 32%As the FairVote article shows, bullet voting trends have much more to do with the distribution of candidates than with the voting method itself.

In RCV there have been many elections that have had higher rates of bullet voting than we saw in the Independent Party of Oregon primary, which is why it's important to have a larger, statistically relevant sample size and take context into consideration before we draw broader conclusions.

* Veteran readers of this site may be surprised to see us citing FairVote as a source. While they still have a long way to go before the electoral science community considers them to be credible, this article is a step in the right direction.

Q: Can STAR Voting elect winners who are not majority preferred?

A:

No voting method can guarantee that winners will always have a majority of all votes cast.

This is because elections may exist where there are three or more polarized factions who refuse to coalition. The recent Portland, Oregon mayoral election is a perfect example where even in a top-two majority runoff election Ted Wheeler was unable to get a majority because the write-in campaign for Rayford received many votes. 

When voters are able to support multiple options, like in STAR Voting, it's common for there to be multiple candidates who had the support of a majority of voters. For example pizza and burritos could both be majority supported dinner options in a family. In these cases, STAR voting not only ensures that the winner is majority preferred, but also that the strongest majority supported candidate wins. 

 

Majority winners in STAR Voting: 

  • STAR Voting is a majoritarian voting method and it guarantees majority preferred winners to the extent possible. 
  • STAR Voting finds the two candidates with the most support overall (in the scoring round) and then elects the finalist who was preferred by a majority of voters who had a preference, (in the Automatic Runoff.)
  • In STAR Voting every ballot is counted in the final round. There are no exhausted ballots and voters are able to weigh in on as many candidates as they want. 



Comparison of majority winners with Ranked Choice Voting: 

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) advocates claim that RCV elects majority winners, but in many cases this is a false majority which is manufactured by discarding ballots and then counting remaining ballots only. Ballots in RCV can removed from the tabulation process by several methods:

1. If a voter doesn't rank all the candidates, their vote may be unable to transfer when their favorite or favorites are eliminated. Most jurisdictions limit rankings to the top 4, 5, or 10 because doing so helps reduce voter error and voided ballots, and also because of ballot formatting, printing, and tabulation constraints. Unfortunately, this leads to an increase in exhausted ballots if the finalists don't end up in a voters list of ranked candidates. 

2. If a voter's first choice or top choices are quite strong, but not strong enough to ultimately win with the RCV tabulation, then a vote may not transfer until that voter's next choice(s) has already been eliminated. Voters whose favorite comes in second place will always have their first choice eliminated but their next choice not counted. This directly contradicts claims to the contrary that can be found in most voter education materials. 

3. Voters may strategically not rank additional candidates due to incorrect assumptions about the way RCV is tallied.

These ballots are called exhausted ballots. On average, 10.9% of RCV ballots are not counted in the deciding round and 61% of RCV elections do not find a true majority.

4. If a ballot is voided due to voter error their vote may be unable to be counted or unable to transfer. These are called "spoiled ballots" Spoiled ballots are sometimes included in statistics for ballot exhaustion and sometimes are not. Spoiled ballots include ballots which gave candidates equal rankings, gave multiple rankings to a candidate, and in some cases, voters who skipped rankings. 

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) often fails to elect the strongest majority preferred candidate or the candidate preferred over all others because many of the rankings voters give are never counted, due to tabulation of RCV acting as a series of Choose-One elections, where only one ranking a voter's ballot is considered. These wasted rankings can skew election results in competitive races where multiple candidates are viable. 

Unlike RCV, STAR Voting uses all ballot data and voter preferences during tabulation. No ballots are exhausted. STAR Voting advances the two highest scoring candidates to the runoff and then elects the finalist who was preferred by more voters. This is a majority of all voters who had a preference between these two.  

 

Non-majority outcomes in RCV:

The Burlington, Vermont 2009 Mayoral Election, which used Ranked Choice Voting, is a classic example where there were two majority preferred candidates. RCV failed to elect the candidate with the larger majority, and the candidate preferred over all others lost. This election is also a classic example showing massive strategic voting incentives for RCV voters. In this election Kurt Wright voters had been told that if their favorites were eliminated their next choice would be counted and so they voted for their favorite honestly even though it was clear from polling that Wright would not be able to win in the left-leaning town. Honestly ranking their favorite 1st backfired and actually helped elect these voter's last choice, whereas if they had not voted, or had voted lesser-evil, their 2nd choice would have won. It's also worth noting that Wright voters did not have their 2nd choice counted because the election was called (prematurely) for Bob Kiss.

While we don't think that failing an impossible majority requirement should be a deal breaker in general, it is for jurisdictions that have this requirement in their election code. In these cases STAR is a viable option while RCV does not comply. In these cases, STAR is a viable option while RCV does not comply. That said we do believe that the RCV exhausted ballot and wasted vote phenomena is a deal breaker as it violates the spirit of 'one-person, one-vote' when ballots which could have made a difference are discarded without being fully counted.

 

 

Is STAR Voting constitutional?

A:

In short - Yes. The US Constitution does not include anything that would render STAR Voting unconstitutional, and in fact STAR Voting does a better job at ensuring One-Person-One-Vote than the current system. For more on One-Person-One-Vote click here.

Every country and every state has their own constitution and the exact wording on elections and how they should be conducted varies, but in general, STAR Voting is compliant with these legal codes. 

There are a number of specific requirements that are commonly found in state constitutions or local charters that STAR Voting complies with easily, even when other voting methods like RCV do not:

 

1. Many constitutions or charters call for a "win by Plurality" or state that "The candidate who receives the most votes wins." 

STAR Voting complies with this requirement because in STAR "your vote goes to the finalist you prefer and the the finalist who receives the most votes wins." 

This is the requirement where Ranked Choice Voting has had the most problems. In the state of Maine, despite having been passed statewide by voters, RCV is still unable to be used for statewide races because it was ruled unconstitutional on these grounds. Maine now uses RCV for local and federal elections, but using RCV for statewide races will require a constitutional amendment to remove the "win by plurality" clause. Many other states including many in New England have similar clauses in their constitutions. 

 

2. Many constitutions or charters call for a "win by majority" or state that "The winner must receives a majority of votes cast." 

STAR Voting complies with this requirement because in STAR the two finalists advance to the runoff and the finalist who is preferred by a majority of voters who had a preference wins. Since no voting method can ensure that a true majority will exist (if for example there are three polarized factions who hate each other) the most any voting method can do is narrow down the election to two finalists, and then find the majority preferred option between those two. This is exactly how STAR Voting works

In contrast, RCV elections find a candidate with a majority of votes from "remaining ballots" only. Studies on the "majority winner" claims by RCV advocates looked at elections where more than one round was needed and found that RCV failed to elect a candidate who received a majority of votes over 61% of the time. Learn more about majority winner compliance for STAR and RCV here.  

 

3. Many constitutions, charters, and election statutes call for ballots to be processed and tabulated at the local countywide or precinct level and call for local or precinct level reporting of results. 

STAR Voting's simple two round tabulation doesn't require centralized tabulation, is compatible with current vote tabulation logistical requirements, doesn't require new voting machines in most cases, and allows for preliminary reporting of election results in real time as votes are tallied. In STAR Voting both the scoring round and the runoff are tabulated with addition. In the scoring round you add up the stars for each candidate, in the runoff you add up the votes for each finalist. 

In contrast, RCV elections require all ballots to be returned and centralized in one location before tabulation can proceed through the tabulation rounds. It's impossible for one jurisdiction to fully tally or audit their own ballots in a meaningful way because many of the rankings given are not be counted under RCV. Which ballot data is counted in each round of an RCV election depends on the order of candidate elimination, which must be determined by the central authority and can only be done after all ballots are in hand, and after the previous round of tabulation has been completed. This requirement for centralized tabulation is illegal according to election codes in many parts of the country, and may make requirements for audits, partial hand recounts, and other election integrity requirements impossible as well. 

 

4. Some state constitutions require a Top-Two Runoff Election. 

STAR Voting's tabulation includes a top-two runoff, so there is a case to be made that STAR Voting would be constitutional in states with this requirement where other methods like RCV are not. 

 

If you are interested in learning more about the legal considerations of adopting STAR Voting in your area, feel free to send us an email.