A CLOSER LOOK AT THREE LEADING VOTING METHODS
Most people assume that the standard traditional voting method 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 voting methods 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 in the US, and then we cover STAR Voting, the proposal that Equal Vote most strongly recommends.
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, 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 150 years ago, Instant Runoff Voting (as it's technically called) is now the most commonly used method for counting ranked ballots. Voters rank candidates on the ballot 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.
*Note that "Ranked Choice Voting" is technically an umbrella term which includes a number of ranked methods, each with a different mechanism for tallying the votes. For simplicity, we will use RCV as it's commonly used in the US to refer to Instant Runoff Voting specifically.
STAR Voting is a modern voting method where voters use a 5 star ballot, giving candidates a score from 0 up to 5 stars to show their preferences. Candidates left blank receive a zero. Voters can give the same score to multiple candidates if they have no preference between them. The two highest scoring candidates are finalists. The finalist preferred by more 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. GRADE: C
RCV: Ranking candidates is intuitive, and in many RCV elections there's no primary, so voters will 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. 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.
Despite the fact that everyone knows how to rank things, in RCV there are a number of ways that voters can accidentally "void" their ballots if they aren't careful. Voters who rank candidates equally or skip rankings can accidentally make their votes not count.
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 true unless the disclaimer "if your next choice is still in the running" is added. The reality is that voters whose favorite comes in 2nd place will not have their next choice counted. Voters whose favorite is eliminated before their vote transfers will also not have their next choice counted. 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 elections. Remember, in RCV all the first choice rankings are counted first, and the candidate who came in last place is eliminated. Then, voters whose favorite was eliminated will have their next choice counted if possible. This means that it's impossible to know which ballot data to count until all ballots have been returned and centralized in one place. The complex tabulation process and the fact that most rankings given will never be counted mean that auditing and recounts are significantly more challenging than with almost any other system. GRADE: D
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 different steps. 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. This can be confusing at first. Still, the two round tabulation process is simpler than systems like RCV that have multiple elimination rounds.
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 simple as well. STAR ballots can be counted locally and don't need to be processed in a central location. GRADE: B
HONESTY - Encourages and rewards honest voting.
Choose One: Only voters who prefer one of the two front-runners should vote honestly. Since barely half of voters in the US are registered with a major party (1), this is a failure. Many voters have to vote strategically or vote for the "lesser of two evils" to ensure that their vote is not wasted and to prevent vote-splitting and the spoiler effect from electing their least preferred candidate. GRADE: F
RCV: Most voters tend to vote honestly, but for those who prefer a strong underdog, ranking your favorite in first place can backfire, causing your second choice to be eliminated prematurely and allowing your least favorite to win. 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. 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.
RCV advocates often say that with RCV, you won't need to vote "lesser evil", but that claim does not pass a fact check and 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. GRADE: B
STAR Voting: With STAR Voting, voters can and should vote honestly and vote their conscience. Strategic voting is not incentivized and is as likely to backfire as it is to help a voter. GRADE: A
EXPRESSIVENESS - Voters can express their full opinion.
Choose One: Because voters can only vote for or support one candidate, this is the least expressive system possible. GRADE: D
RCV: Voters can rank three or more candidates, but are unable to show ties or show how much they actually like each. Not all the rankings you give will be counted, depending on the elimination process. GRADE: B
STAR Voting: Voters give each candidate a score from 0 up to 5 and can show how much 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. GRADE: A
ACCURACY – The candidate that best represents the will of the electorate should win.
For the purposes of this article, a number of metrics were used to assess relative accuracy, including real world election data and outcomes, simulated elections, and statistical analysis. A voting method's accuracy can be measured across a wide variety of realistic election scenarios as the percentage of the time that the method can be expected to elect the winner who best represents the will of the people.
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 methods 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."
Choose One: Choose One Voting is unanimously regarded as the least accurate voting method with at best a roughly 86% rate of electing the most representative candidate. More specifically, Choose One voting only gives accurate results if there are no more than two candidates in the race. Elections often fail to elect the candidate with the most support and there is a high danger of vote-splitting (the cause of the spoiler effect), which can allow a candidate who was opposed by the majority to win. Vote-splitting drives strategic voting, which is an even bigger threat to accurate results. GRADE: F
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%, closer to the current system than an ideal system. RCV does successfully give accurate results in elections with only two viable candidates, 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. (3) GRADE: C
STAR Voting: STAR Voting gives the most accurate, representative results of any voting system tested when voters are honest. Even if voters are strategic or don't vote as ideally as we might like, Voter Satisfaction Efficiency (2) simulations show 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. GRADE: A
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 deemed “electable”. GRADE: D
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. GRADE: C
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. GRADE: A+
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. GRADE: D
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 (4) 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 may also face constitutionality challenges for failing to ensure that voters' votes are equally weighted.
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. 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. (5) 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.
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. GRADE: C
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. GRADE: B
The study of voting methods is complex, 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 a number of additional voting methods that are worth considering and that are recommended as good methods by the Equal Vote Coalition under the Better Voting Tab.
For voters whose priority is to keep it as simple as possible and who want to stick with a traditional looking ballot, 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.
For voters who are looking to get the best elections and the best representation possible, we strongly recommend STAR Voting.
1.) “29% of voters were registered Dem. and 26% Rep. at the beginning of the last election cycle with 42% Ind.” Democratic, Republican Identification Near Historical Lows. http://www.gallup.com/poll/188096/democratic-republican-identification-near-historical-lows.aspx
2.) 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.htmlhttp://electionscience.github.io/vse-sim/VSE/
3.) “[IRV] can cause spoilers in up to 1 in 5 elections or worse when there are more candidates according to expert analysis.” 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.) “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
5.) 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
6.) 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
7.) 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."
8.) 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."