A CLOSER LOOK AT THREE LEADING VOTING METHODS
Most people assume that traditional Choose-One voting is simply how it's done until they find out about alternative voting methods, and most people find out about Ranked Choice Voting first. In fact, there are a number of alternatives out there, and people have been experimenting with, studying, and using a wide variety of voting methods for thousands of years.
This article covers three options that demand special consideration. We start with the current system in most of the US and much of the world because it's our baseline and because it dominates the global political landscape. Then, we cover Ranked Choice Voting because it's the most widely adopted alternative method, and last but not least we cover STAR Voting, the top proposal we recommend.
It's worth noting that all three of these systems can be used for single-winner, multi-winner, or proportional elections, but many of the conclusions that can be drawn about single-winner methods can be applied more broadly. For those new to the field of voting reform, we strongly recommend starting with a good understanding of single-winner methods before adding in more variables. So, without further ado, we present three leading options for voting reform:
Choose One Voting:
Formally known as Plurality or First Past The Post, Choose One voting is used in the vast majority of the US and many countries around the world. Each person votes for one candidate only. The candidate with the most votes wins.
Ranked Choice Voting (RCV):
Invented over 150 years ago, Instant Runoff Voting (as its technically called) is the most common method for counting ranked ballots. Voters rank candidates in order of preference: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or more depending on logistical factors. If a candidate has a majority of first choice votes, that candidate wins. Otherwise, the candidate with the fewest first choice votes is eliminated. If your first choice is eliminated, your vote goes to your next choice — if they haven’t been eliminated yet — and the process repeats in rounds until one candidate has a majority of the remaining ballots.
With STAR Voting, voters use a 5 star ballot to score candidates from 0 up to 5 stars. You can give the same score to multiple candidates, and you can leave candidates blank if you don't support them at all. The two highest scoring candidates are finalists. The finalist preferred by the most voters wins.
ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS FOR REPRESENTATIVE ELECTIONS
SIMPLICITY - Simple to vote. Simple to tally. Simple to audit.
Choose One: The traditional Choose One ballot is as simple as it gets to fill out, and tallying the votes, auditing, and the rest of the implementation details are simple and cost effective as well.
Where it gets complicated for voters is actually deciding who to vote for. In elections with a number of similar candidates, (think school board elections or partisan primaries), choosing just one may be somewhat arbitrary, and trying to figure out the best strategy to ensure your vote makes a difference might be harder than it seems in a system where it's easy to waste your vote on a candidate who can't actually win. The primary and general election system needed in Choose-One elections is another consideration; having to vote twice is twice as much work for voters.
RCV: Ranking candidates is intuitive, and in many RCV elections there's no primary, so voters generally only need to vote once per election cycle. Most voters who have used RCV found it easy to use and prefer it to the old system. (1.)
On the other hand, in RCV, voters are not allowed to give candidates the same rankings, which can make voting harder if they don't actually have a preference between two candidates, and in most elections there's a limit to how many candidates voters are allowed to rank, which can make it harder to choose just three, or five, or whatever the limit is, especially if none of the front-runners are actually among a voters top choices. In RCV, there are a number of ways that voters can accidentally "void" their ballots if they aren't careful, and even if a voter follows instructions correctly, their vote may not be able to be counted in the final round if they aren't strategic.
RCV's tabulation is quite complex when you get into the details, so most explanations skip over the nuts and bolts, but the fact is that the details in RCV matter, and failing to fully understand how votes are counted can mean that voters don't understand how to vote effectively and don't understand how to ensure their vote stays in play until the deciding round. Misinformation about how RCV is counted is pervasive, and talking points like "if your favorite is eliminated, then your next choice will be counted" are not necessarily true. The reality is that even if your favorite is eliminated, it might be too late for your vote to transfer to your next choice or your next choice may be gone already. Whether or not your vote transfers in time to make a difference depends on the order of elimination. In competitive elections these are details that voters need to understand and take into consideration if they want to vote effectively and not waste their votes.
Due to the nature of the RCV elimination rounds, tabulation can also be quite complex logistically, especially for larger jurisdictions. Most rankings given will never be counted, so it's impossible to know which ballot data to count until all ballots have been returned and centralized in one place. Ranked Choice Voting is one of the only single-winner voting methods that requires centralization of ballot data, and this is a significant issue for election security as chain of custody is harder to maintain, and mistakes in ballot counting are harder to catch. For example, in a New York City mayoral election which used RCV, over 135 thousand test ballots were accidentally included in the count and the mistake was caught by a candidate, not the Board of Elections themselves. (2.) Last but not least, the complex tabulation process in RCV also means that auditing and recounts are significantly more challenging than with almost any other system.
STAR Voting: The 5 star ballot is familiar and user friendly. Voters just need to follow the instructions: give their favorites 5 stars, give their last choice a 0 (or leave them blank) and score the other candidates as they choose. Voters only need to vote once and primaries are unnecessary in most cases.
To tally STAR Voting results, you count the ballots in two rounds. In the first round, you add up the stars to find the two highest scoring candidates overall; in the second round, you add up the votes. Each voter's ballot counts as one vote for the finalist they scored higher. The two round tabulation process is simpler than systems like RCV that have multiple elimination rounds but can be tricky to explain at first.
Because STAR Voting is tallied using addition in both rounds, processing ballots is quite simple for election officials and can be done using existing hardware, infrastructure, and protocols. Auditing or recounts are relatively simple as well. STAR ballots can be counted locally and don't need to be processed in a central location.
HONESTY - Encourages and rewards honest voting.
Choose One: Only voters who prefer a front-runner can safely vote honestly. Vote-splitting and the Spoiler Effect can commonly allow candidates who were opposed by the majority to win. Many voters have to vote strategically or vote for the "lesser of two evils" to ensure that their vote is not wasted.
RCV: Most voters tend to vote honestly, and you can always vote your conscience if there are only two viable candidates, but the more viable candidates there are, the more you should consider voting strategically. In elections where your favorite is competitive but isn't likely to win on 1st choice votes alone, ranking them in 1st place can backfire. If your second choice is eliminated before your vote is able to transfer, your vote can actually help your last choice win. It's a counterintuitive pathology that's fairly unique to Ranked Choice Voting in which you can actually get a worse outcome than if you hadn't voted at all, (3.) and it happens to large blocks of voters in real elections, including a Burlington, VT mayoral race in 2009 (4.) (5.) and the recent Alaska special election for US House. (6.) If your favorite is pretty strong but you think they may not make it into the top two with first choice votes alone, you are better off marking a front-runner as your first choice.
RCV advocates often say that with RCV, you won't need to vote "lesser evil", but that claim does not pass fact check. A few well known organizations who advocate for RCV are notorious for selling the reform with overblown or completely false claims on a regular basis.
STAR Voting: With STAR Voting, voters can and should vote honestly and vote their conscience. Strategic voting is not incentivized. Voters should give their favorites 5 stars, their last choice 0, and show their honest preference order.
EXPRESSIVENESS - Voters can express their full opinion.
Choose One: Voters can only vote for or support one candidate. This is the least expressive system possible.
RCV: Voters can rank three or more candidates, and some jurisdictions allow voters to rank five (NYC) or 10 (Bay Area, CA). Voters are unable to show equal support and are also unable to show how much they actually like each candidate - a 2nd choice vote could mean that the candidate was as good as their favorite, or it could mean that they were a lesser evil who the voter doesn't actually support at all. Many of the rankings you give will not be counted, depending on the elimination process and how many rounds are conducted. On average, in elections where more than one round of tabulation is needed, over 10% of RVC ballots are "exhausted" and not able to be counted int the deciding round. (7.) (8.)
STAR Voting: Voters give each candidate a score from 0 up to 5 and can show how much or little they like each candidate as well as who they prefer to who. If they don’t have a preference, voters can give multiple candidates the same scores. All the info you give on your ballot will be counted.
ACCURACY – The candidate that best represents the will of the electorate should win.
There are a few schools of thought on how to best define accuracy, but regardless which lens you look through, the relative conclusions comparing voting method accuracy hold. In general, a voting method can be said to have accurately elected the correct winner in a given election if that winner was "the candidate who was able to make as many voters as possible as satisfied as possible with the outcome." Statistics in this section come from the "Voter Satisfaction Efficiency" models. (9.)
Choose One: Choose One voting only gives consistently accurate results if there are two candidates in the race and is unanimously regarded as the least accurate voting method with a baseline of around an 86% chance of electing the most representative candidate. This can be mitigated to some extent by narrowing down the field of candidates with a primary, and Choose One Voting paired with a top-two general election actually can boast accuracy similar to Ranked Choice Voting in most studies. Still, Choose One elections often fail to elect the candidate with the most support, and there is a high risk of vote-splitting leading to spoilers, which can allow a candidate who was opposed by the majority to win. Vote-splitting also drives strategic voting, another significant threat to accurate results.
RCV: Despite the ranked ballot, which gets quite a bit more data from voters than a traditional choose one ballot, RCV is not as accurate as one would expect — topping out at only about 91%. RCV does successfully give accurate results in elections with only two viable candidates, and it can prevent a 3rd party candidate with very little support from being a spoiler, but it can fail to elect the candidate who was preferred over all others in elections with three or more competitive candidates. RCV's tournament style elimination process ignores a large amount of voter's ballot data by design, even when that data could have been relevant if it had been counted. As a consequence, RCV's results are significantly less accurate than many other alternative voting methods, and those results get worse the more candidates are in the race. (10.)
STAR Voting: STAR Voting gives some of the most accurate, representative results of any voting system tested. This is especially true when voters are honest, but even if voters are strategic or don't vote as ideally as we might like, statistical analysis shows that STAR Voting is significantly more accurate than the other methods described here. STAR Voting picks the candidate that best represents the will of the electorate with a roughly 98% statistical accuracy.
EQUALITY – Fair, equal, and impartial. Doesn't give anyone an unfair advantage.
Choose One: Two similar candidates can split supporters between them and both lose, even if one or both had support from a majority. Because of vote-splitting, any voter who likes more than one candidate is at a huge disadvantage, as is any candidate who is similar to their opponent. Furthermore, closed partisan primaries further disadvantage 3rd parties and candidates who are not incumbents or who are not deemed “electable”.
RCV: The ranked ballot is somewhat more fair than our current system because it mitigates vote-splitting, but in RCV, not all those rankings are actually counted. RCV advocates often say that if your first choice is eliminated, your next choice will be counted, but for many voters, this isn't true — it depends on the order that the candidates you ranked are eliminated in. By the time your first choice is eliminated, your 2nd and 3rd choices may already be gone. This means that some voters get more say than others. Not fair and not equal. Ranked Choice Voting can also have a large number of ballots which are unable to be counted in the deciding round, and as we discussed above, even if your vote is counted, it might have the opposite of the desired effect. Some voters and candidates are at a mathematical disadvantage.
STAR Voting: STAR Voting eliminates vote-splitting by allowing voters to support multiple candidates, and then counting all of that ballot data at once. This gives each voter a mathematically equally weighted vote. Any way I fill out my ballot, you can fill yours out in an equal and opposite fashion so that our votes balance each other out. This is one of the few systems that doesn’t give some voters or candidates an unfair advantage.
One final consideration:
VIABILITY - Has a good chance of being passed and not being repealed.
Choose One: Choose One Voting is the most used election system in the world, but it is extremely unpopular! Many people are trying to repeal and replace it with something better, and many have succeeded. Now that we have technology to help count ballots, there’s no reason to have an unrepresentative and archaic voting system. It should be illegal.
RCV: RCV is currently in use in countries like Australia and Ireland, in the states of Maine and now Alaska, and in a number of cities and counties around the US. RCV has seen recent resurgence in momentum, but has also been widely repealed by jurisdictions that have implemented it (11.) (12.) in part because of its problems with the spoiler effect, logistical challenges with the complex algorithm, and requirements for centralized tabulation. RCV is unconstitutional in a number of states and jurisdictions which require that the candidate who receives the most votes wins, and RCV may also face constitutionality challenges for failing to ensure that voters' votes are equally weighted, the legal definition of one person one vote. (13.)
Many who advocate for RCV do so believing that the reform goes significantly further than it does. Misinformation is widespread and often repeated by otherwise respected and credible sources. Many people falsely believe that it is safe to vote your conscience; that if your favorite is eliminated, then your next choice will be counted; and that it solves the spoiler effect, even though these claims are demonstrably false, particularly in competitive elections. Other claims, such as that RCV helps voter turnout, or helps combat racial disparities in politics are also questionable and some experts have made the case that these benefits are due to other factors, such as eliminating primaries, or that they could be attributed to national trends, not local reform. (14.) Many electoral reform advocates fear that passing a reform on false pretenses, only to repeal it when people realize the truth, could backfire catastrophically and could set the election reform movement back in the long run.
As noted above, RCV is unconstitutional in many places due to implications from the way the many elimination rounds are conducted, including in the state of Maine where it was recently adopted by ballot initiative but cannot be used for statewide offices. (15.) RCV also raises serious concerns around One Person, One Vote: the fact that some ballots are exhausted and not counted in the final round and the fact that that some voters whose first choice is eliminated will not have their next choice counted are both examples of where RCV fails to deliver each voter an equally weighted vote, as has been mandated "as nearly as is practicable" by the US Supreme Court. (16.)
While RCV has played an important role in the evolution and adoption of voting reform, a growing body of scientific evidence on voting theory points to the reality that it is not the reform of the future.
STAR Voting: STAR Voting is a relatively new proposal, though it's essentially a hybrid of two other methods that have quite a bit of history. It hasn't been adopted for municipal governmental elections yet, but analysis is very promising and all available evidence shows that it will outperform the voting methods in use currently. Most voting machines would need a software upgrade, but the code and programming is simple and doable. Many state constitutions require a "win by plurality", which STAR offers. The fact that STAR Voting has perfectly equally weighted votes could make it the gold standard for One Person, One Vote. These two points make STAR Voting widely constitutionally viable. STAR Voting's simple tabulation means that it scales well and is a viable option for national elections.
The study of voting methods is complex and multifaceted, and the implications are massive. If you are new to electoral science, it's important to understand that the information presented above is only the tip of the iceberg. You can learn more about each of the considerations above under the Science tab at the top of the site, and you can learn about several additional voting methods that are worth considering and that are endorsed by the Equal Vote Coalition under the Better Voting Tab.
For voters who want to adopt a great voting method that is robust, adaptable, and legally viable all over the world, STAR Voting is considered the end game by many electoral reformers. Voting reform is important and we owe it to voters to get it right and to not make them change voting methods more than is absolutely necessary. For voters who are looking to get the best elections and the best representation possible, we strongly recommend STAR Voting.
For voters whose priority is to keep it as simple as possible and who want to stick with a traditional looking ballot for now, Approval Voting is a great upgrade that gets quite good results with a very small change from Choose One Voting.
For voters who already have invested in the switch to ranked ballots, Ranked Robin (a Condorcet method) is a great option that feels and looks the same as RCV from a voters perspective, but that yields dramatically more fair and accurate results.
1.) "What We Know About Ranked Choice Voting" https://www.newamerica.org/political-reform/reports/what-we-know-about-ranked-choice-voting/
2.) "...reporters and campaign staffers noticed there were roughly 135,000 more votes counted than those reported on election night." https://www.politico.com/states/new-york/albany/story/2021/06/29/election-officials-void-latest-new-york-mayoral-count-after-including-test-results-in-tally-1387464
3.) “Frequency of monotonicity failure under Instant Runoff Voting: Estimates based on a spatial model of elections” Frequency of monotonicity failure under Instant Runoff Voting: Estimates based on a spatial model of elections. By Joseph T Ornstein, University of Michigan, Dept. of Political Science and Robert Z. Norman, Dartmouth College, Dept. of Mathematics https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258164743_Frequency_of_monotonicity_failure_under_Instant_Runoff_Voting_Estimates_based_on_a_spatial_model_of_elections
4.) Non-monotonicity in 2009 Burlington, VT mayoral race. Center For Election Science, |
5.) Voter Paradox in the 2009 Burlington IRV Mayoral Race, The Vermont Legislative Research Service
6.) Non-monotonicity in 2022 Alaska election for US House. https://electionscience.org/commentary-analysis/rcv-fools-palin-voters-into-electing-a-progressive-democrat/
7.) Ballot (and voter) “exhaustion” under Instant Runoff Voting: An examination of four ranked-choice elections. "The rate of ballot exhaustion was high in each election, ranging 9.6%–27.1%." By Craig M. Burnett, University of North Carolina, and Vladimir Kogan, Ohio State University, USA. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0261379414001395
8.) Expert report reveals weaknesses of RCV. By Isabelle Christie. "Drawing on previous research conducted by the Maine Policy Institute, McCarty examined 98 RCV elections from 2006 to 2019 and found that, on average, 10.8 percent of ballots casted were considered exhausted by the final round."
9.) Voter Satisfaction Efficiency (VSE) studies by Dr Jameson Quinn Phd. At the time this study was released Quinn was Vice Chair for the Center for Election Science. Quinn is now on the board of the Equal Vote Coalition. Voter Satisfaction Efficiency is a measure of the accuracy of a election method which uses thousands of simulated elections with honest and strategic voters who cluster on issues in a realistic way. http://electionscience.github.io/vse-sim/vse.html
10.) "As we add more candidates, the problems with [RCV] become more pronounced — to the point where [RCV] in particular produces these really strange results." https://youtu.be/-4FXLQoLDBA
11.) “STV/IRV was used in roughly two dozen US cities in the early 1900’s and repealed in all of them except for Cambridge, MA. In the modern era it was repealed in Ann Arbor, MI in 1976, then these four places in the past decade: Burlington, Vermont. Cary, North Carolina. Pierce County, Washington. Aspen, Colorado.”- Clay Shentrup, co-founder of the Center For Election Science
12.) Overvoting and the Equality of Voice under Instant-Runoff Voting in San Francisco, California Journal of Politics and Policy. By Francis Neely and Jason A. McDaniel San Francisco State University. "Concerns about the fairness of IRV led at least four jurisdictions to repeal similar reforms shortly after enacting them: Burlington, VT (2006–2009), Cary, NC (2007–2009), Pierce County, WA (2006–2009), Aspen, CO (2009)." and "Consistently, precincts where more African-Americans reside are more likely to collect overvoted, voided ballots. And this often occurs where more Latino, elderly, foreign-born, and less wealthy folks live."
13.) What is an Equal Vote? equal.vote/equal_vote
14.) Voter Participation with Ranked Choice Voting in the United States. By David C. Kimball and Joseph Anthony, Department of Political Science University of Missouri‐St. Louis St. Louis, MO. "We find that RCV helps reduce the substantial drop in voter participation that commonly occurs between primary and runoff elections. Otherwise RCV does not appear to have a strong impact on voter turnout and ballot completion. In a case study of Minneapolis we find similar levels of socioeconomic and racial disparities in voter participation in plurality and RCV elections." https://www.umsl.edu/~kimballd/KimballRCV.pdf
15.) RCV remains unconstitutional in Maine for State offices. https://ballotpedia.org/Maine_Supreme_Judicial_Court_advisory_opinion_on_ranked-choice_voting#cite_note-meadvisoryopinion-1
16.) RCV violates the Equal Protections Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Brandon Bryer, University of Cincinnati Law Review