Presentation to Sightline

A Presentation on STAR Voting


“The fact is that FPTP, the voting method we use in most of the English-speaking world, is absolutely horrible, and there is reason to believe that reforming it would substantially (though not of course completely) alleviate much political dysfunction and suffering.”

So says Jameson Quinn in “A Voting Theory Primer for Rationalists”


Considering the state of the world right now and our position in it, where America holds a colossal amount of power, it becomes clear that this may well be the central issue of our times.

Most who have dabbled in this field have heard of Kenneth Arrow, who posed 3 basic "fairness criteria" and showed that no ranked method can meet all of them. In fact a number- like Favorite Betrayal and Later No Harm Criterion- are in effect mutually exclusive. Following up on this idea, Gibbard and Satterthwaite independently came up with another theorem, which showed that “no voting system (ranked or otherwise) could possibly avoid creating strategic incentives for some voters in some situations.”

The work of these three groundbreaking scientists unfortunately didn’t answer our fundamental question. “What is the best voting system?” but their work did suggest another key point which seems to have largely been ignored by many who came after them.

A binary pass/fail approach to criteria isn’t going to get us the answers we need, and thus, in order to find the best voting system, we need to zoom out, balance competing factors, and take a more holistic approach to assessing voting systems.


We do not live in a black and white world

Unless we want to find ourselves mired in a never ending paradox it’s critical that look through a broad spectrum lens. With that in mind I posit a new question:  

What exactly are we trying to accomplish here? The Equal Vote Coalition has distilled the matter down to five pillars of a just voting system: Equality, Accuracy, Honesty, Expressiveness, and Simplicity.

Equality is a core concept in our government and our values. A voting system should be equal and the idea of the equally weighted vote and one person one vote are directly mandated, despite the fact that we currently accomplish neither. A voting system should not play favorites and my vote should always be equal to yours.

STAR Voting offers perfecty equally weighted votes, while RCV favors certain types of voters and puts others- like those that prefer strong underdogs- at a disadvantage.

Accuracy is another pillar so fundamental to a good election that it is often overlooked. Of course we want to elect the leader or leaders that best represent the will of the people. In single-winner elections it’s a strong bet that a candidate that was preferred over all others should win, but in extremely close races sometimes we need more information. Since not all voting systems have a highly expressive ballot this is an area where we must turn to simulations and analysis beyond election data to get an accurate measure. In these kinds of close races we may need to know not only who was preferred to who, but also how much support each candidate had, according to each voter.

Voter Satisfaction Efficiency and its predecessor Bayesian Regret look at how often a given voting system will elect the candidate that can make “as many voters as possible as satisfied as possible with the election results.”

This kind of modeling shows clearly that our current system is the worst and that STAR Voting tops the charts in election accuracy. RCV falls about ½ way between the two and didn’t even make the top 10.

Honesty is the third critical pillar. We want to be able to simply vote our conscience. For some voters this could mean simply showing who their favorite is, but for those with a more nuanced opinion, this requires an expressive ballot where we can show how much we like multiple candidates and who we prefer to who. Voting honestly and expressively should be the primary incentive.

As Gibbard and Satterthwaite showed above, it’s impossible to create a system where strategic voting is never beneficial, but we can make blatant dishonest voting not worth the trouble. We need a voting system that is highly accurate and representative when we are honest, but we also need a system that doesn't incentivize strategic voting in the first place and that is still highly accurate even if some voters try and game the system.

STAR Voting does a good job discouraging strategic voting. VSE simulations show that dishonest voting is basically just as likely to backfire than to help your candidates and as such it’s not worth the risk. In comparison strategic voting in RCV is twice as likely to help voters than to hurt them. Specifically, voters need to be strategic in close three way races. In Burlington, the Republican voters, who knew the Republican wouldn’t win, should have dishonestly ranked their second choice in first place in order to prevent the Spoiler Effect, which ended up throwing the election to a less preferred candidate.

Even if voters were strategic in STAR Voting, the election accuracy is still as good or better than IRV in a best case scenario. 

Expressiveness and Simplicity

As we saw above, expressiveness is a key component to both honest voting and accurate results, but it’s important to balance this pillar with it’s cousin simplicity. A voting system must be simple and transparent enough that voters understand the system and trust it with their votes. For some, our current First-Past-The-Post system may seem to be the epitome of simplicity. Anyone can figure out how to fill out a ballot- but the implications can be extremely complex. Many voters understand that our system plays favorites and devolves us into a polarized caricature of our better selves, and many people feel that the system is rigged so badly it’s not worth voting.

A truly simple voting system will be user friendly to both the voters, and the elections officials, and will instill confidence by yielding results that make sense. STAR Voting is precinct summable, unlike RCV, and produces clear and transparent results. After an election we can know what percentage preferred the winner over the other finalist, and we have the overall scores and average scores to compare the other candidates. RCV’s lack of precinct summabilty means that the system doesn’t scale well and could be more vulnerable to fraud and talking with elected officials this is the major reason many withhold their support.

Sightline’s Stance On Voting Systems

Sightline is a nationally respected organization which has considerable influence, especially locally. In the key areas where you work it’s your mission to to make the Northwest the global model we need to address the critical problems our world is facing, standing for public policies that support citizens equally. I’m here today to convince you to endorse STAR Voting, a cutting edge voting system that maximizes these five pillars of just democracy. This is our chance to offer the electorate a truly Equal Vote for the first time ever, and to do so while maximizing election accuracy and strongly incentivizing honest voting. Even if you aren’t convinced that STAR Voting is the ultimate reform, it’s clearly a dramatic improvement over our current system.

I understand that Sightline has historically supported Ranked Choice Voting and as a longtime advocate myself I’m not asking you to withdraw that support. We support RCV in Benton County which was passed, in part, by Alan Zundel, who is now one of our Chief Petitioners in Lane County. We would support any improvement or stepping stone, but I think it is critical that you take a step back and withdraw your support from one specific voting system criterion that many believe has severely compromised the voting reform movement in recent decades.

Later-No-Harm, aka LNH, is a much loved criterion at the core of Sightline and FairVote’s endorsement of Ranked Choice Voting, as both Sightline's Kristin Eberhard and FairVote's Rob Richie have explained to me. It states that honestly ranking or rating your down ballot choices will not hurt your favorite, which is of course desirable. Unfortunately this criteria is at direct odds with two even more critical goals.

In order to pass this criterion, voting systems like IRV in practice sacrifice too much: Later No Harm requires more expressive voting systems to ignore some voters’ down ballot rankings or ratings, while counting the down ballot rankings of some others. Stated another way, in every Instant Runoff election, some voters will not have their next choice counted, even after their first choice is eliminated. This is fundamentally unfair and directly compromises voter equality and equally weighted votes.

Later No Harm leaves us wide open to the spoiler effect and in practice requires us to fail an even more important criteria called Favorite Betrayal, which states that it’s safe to honestly rank your favorite first.

As I’m sure you all know, the Spoiler Effect is the number one reason we are trying to reform the voting system in the first place. Concern around Vote Splitting and the Spoiler Effect has been echoed by the dozens of elected officials and their policy directors who I have spoken with about election reform in the last year. Voters have of course been echoing concerns around “Lesser-Evil” voting and Vote Splitting since long before candidates like Ralph Nader and Ross Perot brought the issue to the national spotlight.

“Whether they’ve realized it or not, folks who tout Later No Harm as the holy grail of voting systems criteria are actually saying that The Spoiler Effect is not a problem they think is important to fix.  We respectfully disagree, and thus said goodbye to Later No Harm.”

- says Emily Dempsey, BA in Mathematics and BS in computer science from Trueman State University, in her article “A Farewell to Pass/Fail: Why We Ditched Later No Harm”

STAR Voting: This is What Democracy Looks Like

Necessity is the mother of invention and not surprisingly this has been a groundbreaking year for voting reform! In Multnomah and Lane Counties we're collecting signatures for twin ballot measures which would fundamentally change the way we vote. If we succeed we will have elections for the first time EVER where the system doesn't play favorites, where every vote is equal, and where voting your conscience is the best strategy.

The central idea is that every vote should be counted and should count equally. My vote should be just as powerful as yours, no matter how many candidates we like, what parties we affiliate with, or if we’re in a minority faction.

With STAR Voting we could skip the low turnout primary all together. You'd just vote once in November, and those ballots are counted in a two step process: STAR stands for Score - Then - Automatic - Runoff.

Give each candidate a score from 0-5. The scores are totaled and the two highest scoring are finalists. Your ballot already shows which finalist you preferred and the finalist that was preferred by more voters wins.

It sounds fairly simple but I'd love the chance to explain how groundbreaking this really is and how much further it goes than earlier voting reforms. Unlike our current system STAR Voting encourages us to show our full, honest opinions. Unlike other instant runoff systems, no ballots are exhausted or ignored so every vote is fully and equally counted.

Even if your favorites can’t win, your vote always makes a difference and helps prevent your worst case scenario. No matter how many candidates are in the race STAR Voting is highly accurate at electing the candidate with the most support.

There are moments in history, tipping points, where exerting a small amount of pressure can create exponential change on every other issue that's important to us. Voting reform is that opportunity and the time to pilot cutting edge systems like STAR Voting is now! We need your help.

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