Our take on FairVote's position regarding STAR Voting

Our take on FairVote's position regarding STAR Voting

We were excited to learn that FairVote, the nation's leading advocate of Ranked Choice Voting, took a deep look at STAR Voting. We were doubly thrilled when their astute researchers weren't able to come up with even a single viable weakness of the STAR Voting method. Our only true disappointment is that FairVote, to date, has yet to correct the significant inaccuracies in their article, despite repeated asks from the Equal Vote Coalition and others. We believe failure to address these mischaracterizations may have a chilling effect on organizations and individuals considering support of the STAR Voting ballot measure currently under consideration in Oregon.

What is STAR?

STAR is an acronym for "Score Then Automatic Runoff." It's a voting method, meaning that it describes a ballot and an algorithm for counting those ballots. In STAR Voting, voters support each candidate with up to five stars, as they would a restaurant in a Yelp review. The top two candidates are then automatically compared to see which is preferred by more voters. STAR Voting will be considered by voters for the first time ever this November for adoption for nonpartisan county offices in Lane County, Oregon.

Why the Equal Vote Coalition is supporting STAR in 2018 instead RCV

At the Equal Vote Coalition, we celebrate the successes of voting reform advocates across the country, and are the first to agree that nearly any voting system alternative would be an improvement to our seriously broken “Choose Only One” plurality method. Both chief petitioners of STAR Voting for Lane County supported the Ranked Choice Voting initiative in Benton County Oregon in the 2016 election.

For the 2018 election cycle, after deep consideration and debate, we elected to push forward with STAR here in Oregon, rather than run another Ranked Choice campaign, because we believe STAR Voting to be a superior reform. STAR is monotonic, RCV is not. STAR is simpler than RCV, more accurate in terms of representing the will of the electorate, more expressive for voters, and can be summed by precinct where RCV cannot. Finally, STAR always counts the full expressions of all the voters, where RCV may only count the secondary choices of some of the voters who put a non-winner in first position. This feature of RCV can, and does, lead to significantly non-representative outcomes in the real world.

Why are we talking about this?

FairVote put up a position paper about STAR Voting. We welcome careful analyses from our peers in the election reform world, yet we do not believe the arguments put forward hold up to critical scrutiny. We go into a full breakdown of the rebuttals we invited FairVote to consider below:

FV argument 1: STAR Voting has never been used in a public election, so we don’t have good longitudinal data on how voters respond to it.

Response: STAR Voting is a recent innovation. We all understand that innovation is good in other fields. We believe that in this time, where our current political processes are clearly failing, innovation within the political process is clearly needed. We shouldn’t stick only with methods like plurality voting and Ranked Choice that are over a century old and have significant known flaws. Truly, the only way to get the data FairVote requires is to actually use STAR Voting in real political elections.

FV argument 2: STAR Voting fails the majority criterion.

Response: A voting system passes the "Majority Criterion" if a candidate strictly preferred by a majority of voters always wins. With STAR Voting it is hypothetically possible for a majority of voters to give only one candidate their highest score, and that candidate still loses. This can only happen in the rare case in which:

  • That candidate is also given very low scores by a significant minority of voters (i.e. the candidate is polarizing), and
  • those same voters give at least two other candidates high scores, if not the top score, and the rest of the electorate scored them highly as well: meaning a broader majority gives both a higher cumulative score than the polarizing first candidate.

As such, we believe that the Relaxed Majority Criterion is a more valuable criterion for voting system efficacy.

FV argument 3: Tactical voting is likely with STAR Voting.

Response: Voters try to be tactical in every voting method, but with STAR Voting that effort won’t get them much, if any benefit, and will just as likely backfire and create a worse outcome. This is an incentive for voters to score candidates straightforwardly.

FV argument 4: STAR Voting doesn't uphold the later-no-harm criterion.

Response: STAR Voting balances two competing criteria - Later No Harm and Favorite Betrayal - to minimize unwanted outcomes.

A system that passes Later No Harm will allow a voter to offer support to second, third or more choices, and know, for sure, that expressing that support will not diminish their first choice’s chance of winning. What Later No Harm does not at all address is: Is it safe for a me to give maximum support to my favorite in the first place?

The most fundamental problem with our voting system today is that it violates "Favorite Betrayal." Our current way of voting can incentivize voters to vote against their actual favorites, and instead place a “lesser evil” in first position.

The only way the expression of support for a second candidate in STAR can "harm" your favorite's chance of winning is if your favorite had little chance of winning in the first place. If you think your favorite is vying for second position in the runoff, you have a strong incentive to make sure that the strongest choice you like makes the runoff, by giving real support to your second choice. If you think your favorite is vying with your backup choice for second position, you are strongly incentivized in STAR to accurately support both.

FairVote’s failure to mention Favorite Betrayal in the context of a discussion of strategic voting is telling. Ranked Choice Voting fails Favorite Betrayal in predictable ways, voters who have been using it for the longest time face clear incentives to “lesser evil” vote, and legislatures elected using Ranked Choice over many years end up two-party dominated, just like our current system.

FV argument 5: Under systems that violate later-no-harm, we see that significant numbers of voters feel pressured to bullet vote.

Response: “Bullet voting” means giving the highest score to your favorite candidate and the lowest score to every other candidate regardless of how much you prefer them. In the STAR Voting runoff you vote goes to the finalist you scored higher, so there is a strong incentive for voters to show their preferences between candidates in the elections where it matters. Even if your favorite can’t win, your vote will help prevent your worst case scenario.

FV argument 6: Voters will be incentivized to tactically "bury" the strongest opposition candidates to keep them out of the runoff.

Response: 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.

Fundamentally, for the "burying" tactic FairVote describes 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. Yet in reality, 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.

This is the deepest flaw in FairVote's hypothesis: the proposed tactic requires voters of true opponents to 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. For this reason alone, we see this hypothetical tactic as an obvious non-starter.

FV argument 7: Coordinated tactics like those used in the Berkey/Harper/Rieger Washington in 2010 would be usable in STAR.

Response: The tactic described, where campaign organizers of a leftwing candidate helped get out the vote for a rightwing candidate in order to “squeeze out” the moderate is a possible strategic approach in Ranked Choice Voting, not STAR, because Ranked Choice only ever looks at the first place vote total in each round of counting. In STAR, such organizers would have had to convince their own voters to vote against their own best interests – a much more difficult proposition.

FV argument 8: Ranked Choice Voting allows voters to avoid the tradeoff between electing their favorite and keeping their least favorite out of office, but STAR voting would likely not.

Response: This is false on both counts as was demonstrated in a recent IRV election in Burlington where the candidate who was preferred over all others lost. This is also discernible by mathematical analysis: voters ranking honestly in RCV can, in predictable ways, cause their least favorite candidate to win by putting their most favored candidate in first position. STAR voters, on the other hand, know that two candidates advance to the runoff, so can give maximum support to their favorites, and non-zero support to their second favorites with very little risk of an undesirable outcome.

FV argument 9: STAR Voting advantages strategic voters who understand the system.

Response: STAR Voting advantages voters who understand that an honest vote is a strong vote in the system. The strategies FairVote has put forward disadvantage the voters who uses them: the “bullet” voter loses the ability to express any runoff preferences should his or her favorite not make the runoff, and the “bury” voters are more likely to create a bad outcome for themselves than a positive one.

FV argument 10: Tactical voting could lead directly to undemocratic outcomes.

Response: It is not at all logical to cast a STAR Voting ballot that the article suggests precisely because those same ratings are used in both steps of the counting process. If your ballot makes tactical sense for the scoring phase, but then turns into an obvious nonsense vote in the runoff, that ballot doesn’t actually make tactical sense. What FairVote actually illuminates is precisely that any attempt at strategic voting might backfire in STAR Voting. We agree - an honest vote is actually the best bet.

FV argument 11: The scores will mean different things to different voters.

Response: The idea that voters are subjectively “grading” the candidates in STAR Voting is not correct. Voters offer a level of support from 0 (no support) to 5 (maximum support) to each candidate. They can offer that support on the basis of whatever factors are important to them, but at the end of the day, they are putting forth an objective support level - not a subjective rating. The notion that voters can only understand rankings (“I prefer A more than B”) versus a level of preference (“I prefer A WAY more than B”) is nonsense.

FV argument 12: STAR Voting is less likely to elect the Condorcet winner.

Response: Because this section is based on a flawed notion of viable strategy, it comes to an erroneous conclusion. For a thorough review of a case where Ranked Choice Voting failed to elect the Condorcet candidate, as well as an analysis of what might have happened were STAR Voting used instead, check out http://equal.vote/Burlington.


We respect the role FairVote has played in leading the charge on voting method reform in the United States, and we certainly concede the right for any organization to take a neutral view on our reform. That said, FairVote's unwillingness to correct or even make note of significant analytical defects in their position papers brings benefit to neither the world of election science, nor the electorate as a whole. Reformers can, and should, do better.