Letter to Portland Charter Review Commission

On November 4th, 2021 the Portland Charter Commission Subcommittee on "Form of Voting" presented their findings to the larger Charter Commission group and recommended STAR Voting for Portland, Oregon elections! The subcommittee voted 3-to-1 in favor of STAR Voting and as part of their presentation, included a number of slides in support of STAR Voting and their decision. The commissioner who had voted in favor of Ranked Choice Voting was able to include a slide with his minority report. The letter below is a follow-up thanking the commission and a point-by-point rebuttal of a few of the points raised in the minority report.

Click image above to watch the video of the full presentation from all the elections subcommittees, or skip to 1:03 for the section on STAR Voting and Ranked Choice. 



Dear Charter Commissioners,

First of all, thank you for all of the hard work you have put in to date, and for all that's left to do. We are grateful that you have identified voting method reform as an important subject of study, and even more excited that your initial subcommittee of commissioners has recommended STAR Voting for consideration. 

For those of you to whom STAR is very new, we recommend starting with these articles from our website, which will lead you from the very basics, to the differences between STAR and the most well-known alternate voting method, Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), to how STAR can be implemented with the most cutting edge Proportional Representation system.

About STAR Voting

How to vote with STAR Voting

¿Cómo votar con Votación de Estrella?

RCV vs. STAR

On Primaries

Single or Multi-Winner STAR?

Proportional STAR Voting

More on STAR and Electoral Reform

We also wanted to answer the potential concerns that were expressed in the November 4th City Elections Subcommittee meeting—speaking from my own experience, voting method science can be confusing and counterintuitive, and we are glad for the opportunity to help deepen your understanding of the issues. Attached is a document of detailed responses to those concerns (with some citations for those of you who like deeper dives) that will hopefully allay any misgivings or misunderstandings about STAR.

Please don't hesitate to reach out with any questions. Like most voting method reform advocates, I really love to talk about this issue (admittedly sometimes to the detriment of interpersonal relationships), so I am at your service for long conversations or short follow-ups. If you would like to hear from other organizations or people who are avowed fans of STAR Voting, you can find some here: Organizations and individuals that have endorsed STAR Voting

I hope it's clear that STAR Voting supporters are committed to educating policymakers and voters about the voting method we think will deliver the best results to Portlanders, and confident that Portland is ready to adopt STAR. We are excited to work on this further with you all.

Sincerely,

Mont Chris Hubbard

Director, STAR Voting Action  |  Chair, Oregon STAR Voting

 


Our responses to concerns about STAR Voting, with specific comparisons to Ranked Choice Voting (aka Instant Runoff Voting)

 

For follow-up conversations

The concerns expressed:

  • STAR Voting is "too hard to communicate how to use to voters."
  • "Voters may not vote all the way down [the] candidate list, because they don't have an opinion on some candidates."
  • STAR Voting is "too difficult to administer on a large scale."
  • There may be a "possible expense in updating voting systems to run necessary programming for [a] new voting method."
  • There are "worries about this system being untested at large scale, with campaigns trying to game this new system and voters."
  • "A candidate could tell supporters to 'rate me a 5 and everyone else a 0' to increase my score?"
  • "A candidate may try to lower an opponent's score by running negative attack ads?"
  • "A candidate may have donors fund untraceable communications to opponent's supporters telling them to rank their favorite a 5, but me as a 4 as a 'backup choice' to increase my average on the other side?"
  • "STAR Voting fails the 'later no harm' criterion."
  • "There is some evidence that STAR Voting would fail to elect the candidate that would beat every other candidate head-to-head…"
  • "There is some evidence... that STAR Voting could lead to a candidate preferred by the majority to lose the election."
  • "RCV is simple, intuitive, and tested."

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STAR Voting is "too hard to communicate how to use to voters."

 

In STAR Voting the instructions are on the ballot: give your favorite(s) 5 stars, give your last choice(s) zero stars, and to show your preference order and level of support for the rest.

For voters using STAR Voting for the first time, STAR works much like a 5-star rating, which is one of the most widely-used and familiar formats for public opinion globally.

One key point to keep in mind is that in STAR even if voters do not vote optimally, with proper protocols in place it's nearly impossible for a voter to accidentally void or spoil their ballot—something that is easy to do and quite common in RCV.

(1.) In elections without a majority winner in the first round, rates of ballot exhaustion in RCV range from 9.6-27.1%.
(2.) “10.5 percent of the votes cast…were spoiled ballots or contained voter errors. And a higher incidence of spoiled ballots and voter error occurred in low-income, high-minority population areas, not affluent, predominantly white voting precincts.”

In terms of explaining how STAR Voting is counted, it's a simple two-step process. It's worth noting that, in surveys of voters using RCV in the jurisdictions that have used it the longest, most voters struggle to explain how it's tabulated, and this lack of understanding leads to mistrust of the system.

(3.) "Initial observations and insights about ranked choice voting from a flash usability test", Center for Civic Design, January 2012.

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"Voters may not vote all the way down [the] candidate list, because they don't have an opinion on some candidates."

 

It is not (and should not be) a requirement to give a score (or ranking) to every candidate as some voters have an honestly polarized opinion. The key is that voters who do have a more nuanced opinion, or who do support multiple candidates need to be able to do so in order to prevent vote splitting and spoiled elections.  STAR Voting strongly incentivizes voters to show their full preference order and allows voters to score as many candidates as they want to support.
In contrast, RCV elections usually limit the number of candidates a voter can rank, which in turn can lead to large numbers of exhausted ballots and wasted votes that are not counted in the deciding round. Even in RCV elections when voters can and should rank multiple candidates, a significant percentage still opts not to. This may be due to the fact that many do not understand RCV tabulation and thus may not understand that they should generally rank as many candidates as possible. 

(4.) On average in competitive elections roughly 1/4 of voters in RCV elections don't rank more than one candidate. 

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STAR Voting is "too difficult to administer on a large scale."

 

STAR Voting is tallied using addition. This means that no new hardware is required. STAR Voting would require a software upgrade from an elections vendor and a recertification. The logistics of implementing STAR (including ballot formatting, tabulation, and reporting results) are significantly simpler than with RCV. 

In addition, STAR Voting is precinct-summable, in contrast to RCV which requires centralized tabulation. Because Portland spans three counties, under RCV each county would not be able to tabulate their own ballots or report their local results by precinct; with STAR, they could. (This would be further compounded for statewide or national elections.)

If Portland wants an alternative voting method which is very simple, Approval Voting is worth considering. But Approval Voting doesn't eliminate the need for a primary and doesn't allow voters to show preference.

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There may be a "possible expense in updating voting systems to run necessary programming for [a] new voting method."

 

In 2017 our team sat down for an hour long, in depth meeting with Tim Scott, Director of Elections for Multnomah County. Scott was confident that if Multnomah voted to adopt STAR Voting that the implementation costs would be able to be covered by the current election budget without requiring additional funding. He also expressed confidence that it could be implemented in one election cycle and would be ready to go by the next general election. 

Estimates for a city the size of Portland to implement STAR Voting start around ~$57K if the city is open to new vendors, plus certification (~$50K), but is likely in the neighborhood of $100K if the city wants to stick with their current vendor. (Read much more here: https://www.starvoting.us/cost)

By the way, according to Sightline Institute in 2017, "Although costs will vary by county and system, RCV software modules now cost on the order of $25,000 and a new software system costs on the order of $200,000." What the city needs to keep in mind is that election vendors have historically bid widely divergent estimates for RCV and, regardless of the voting method chosen, the city should get competing bids and not accept the first bid that they're given.

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There are "worries about this system being untested at large scale, with campaigns trying to game this new system and voters."

 

No matter what voting method is in place, candidates will try to "game" the system and try to maximize their chances of winning. STAR Voting strongly incentivizes voters to vote sincerely, while also delivering highly representative results even if voters don't vote optimally. Because STAR Voting (unlike the current system) does empower voters to vote their conscience and eliminates the incentives for lesser-evil voting, we expect voter (and candidate) behavior to improve over time as people get more and more familiar with the new system. 

- "A candidate could tell supporters to 'rate me a 5 and everyone else a 0' to increase my score?"

A candidate who encourages their voters to "rate me a 5 and everyone else a 0" is encouraging other candidates to do the same. Unless this candidate truly thinks all of their competitors are equally horrible, this is not a good strategy. For most candidates a better strategy would be for that candidate to show solidarity with other candidates on their side, in the hopes of earning at least some stars from voters who may consider them to be a 2nd or 3rd choice. 

Moreover, a candidate who encourages their voters to "rate me a 5 and everyone else a 0" is encouraging their voters to throw away their vote in any potential runoff that doesn't include that candidate. That is counter to the voter's interest, so voters would likely not follow the advice or may even lose confidence in a candidate who clearly doesn't have their best interests in mind.

- "A candidate may try to lower an opponent's score by running negative attack ads?"

Negative candidates will likely resort to negative campaigning, as we've seen in many elections regardless of the voting system used. This can be combated to some extent by campaign finance transparency laws requiring that ads disclose who funded them, but it's beyond the scope of the voting method to solve this completely. We do expect that any preference voting method (including STAR or RCV) would at least help discourage negative campaigning. 

- "A candidate may have donors fund untraceable communications to opponent's supporters telling them to rank their favorite a 5, but me as a 4 as a 'backup choice' to increase my average on the other side?"

If the voter actually does like their 2nd choice candidate almost as much as their favorite, then giving them 4 stars would be an honest vote. A voter who didn't like the 2nd choice candidate, on the other hand, would likely want to star that candidate at whatever level they do support them at.

As for the "untraceable communications", unfortunately STAR Voting can't solve the problem of dark money in politics. We wish it could! However, STAR Voting will do a great job of decreasing the influence of money in politics by freeing voters of the fear of vote-splitting, concerns about wasting their votes, and incentives to vote for a "lesser-of-two-evils."

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"STAR Voting fails the 'later no harm' criterion."

 

STAR Voting tops the charts in statistical analysis comparing voting methods for both accuracy and combatting strategic incentives. It is true that STAR Voting does not pass the Later No Harm criterion (which guarantees that a voter can always support other candidates without any chance that could hurt their favorite). The key here is that it is impossible to pass this criterion while also ensuring that it's safe to vote for your favorite themself! The “No Favorite Betrayal” and “Later No Harm” criteria are mutually exclusive. Passing the Later No Harm criterion also requires that a voting method not count data which could be relevant for a better, more consensus outcome. Additionally, voting methods which pass Later No Harm are unable to also eliminate vote-splitting and can incentivize the same lesser-evil voting that we see in the current system. People 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. For a detailed explanation of why we don't mind that STAR Voting fails Later No Harm, read A Farewell to Pass/Fail: Why We Ditched Later No Harm.

STAR Voting does ensure that in practice it is safe to vote for your favorite and also strongly incentives voters to show their honest preference order and level of support. In fact, every study and simulation to date shows that STAR Voting is more resilient to strategic voting and goes further to empower voters to vote their conscience than RCV. Studies are also clear that even if voters are strategic, STAR voting still outperforms RCV and gets more representative outcomes. 

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"There is some evidence that STAR Voting would fail to elect the candidate that would beat every other candidate head-to-head…"

 

The candidate that would beat every other candidate head-to-head is called the Condorcet winner. It's true that STAR can fail to elect the Condorcet winner. It's also true that RCV can fail to elect the Condorcet winner! (Most famously this happened in the 2009 Burlington, VT, mayoral election.) Studies show, in fact, that STAR is twice as likely to elect the Condorcet winner as RCV! 

Finding the candidate who is preferred over all others is a great way to determine the accuracy of ranked ballot methods, but when you use a more expressive 5 star ballot that allows voters to show their preference order and also their level of support then an even higher standard for "accuracy" becomes possible. If STAR voting does not elect the Condorcet winner, it's because that candidate was not strongly supported by the electorate.
Now, if you want to guarantee that the voting method will elect the Condorcet winner, you can. However: 

  1. Like we said, neither STAR nor RCV satisfy this criterion, so you'll need a different method—and we actually have recommendations for you! (We're not against ranked ballots, per se, we're just against the Instant Runoff Voting method commonly known as Ranked Choice Voting!)
  2. When it comes to Condorcet methods, there isn't always a single winner that was preferred over all others. Sometimes preferences are cyclical. (A>B, B>C, C>A.)
  3. As we said above, Condorcet only looks at preference order, not level of support, so there are cases where the Condorcet winner wasn't actually the candidate with the most support. A candidate who is your second choice may be just as good as your favorite, or they could be almost as bad as your worst-case-scenario. Ranked ballots don't have the resolution to allow voters to make those distinctions.
  4. Condorcet methods also fail Later No Harm. It's been proven to be impossible for any voting method to pass every desirable criteria, and it's been proven to be impossible for any voting method to eliminate strategic voting incentives 100% of the time. This is why modern voting science looks at the frequency of problems, not edge case scenarios. 

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"There is some evidence... that STAR Voting could lead to a candidate preferred by the majority to lose the election."

 

In order to guarantee majority preferred winners, voting methods need to narrow it down to the top 2 finalists. RCV and STAR Voting use different methods for determining these finalists. 

  • RCV elects a winner who was preferred on a majority of remaining ballots in the final round of tabulation, but not all ballots are counted in the final round. 
  • STAR counts all ballot data. Of voters who had a preference, STAR Voting elects the finalist preferred by the majority. 

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"RCV is simple, intuitive, and tested."

 

The most simple and widely used voting method is our current system, Choose-One Plurality voting. The fact that a voting method is used and produces winners says nothing about whether or not the method elected the correct winner.
While it is clearly simple to vote for one candidate, or rank a handful of candidates, it is often not at all simple to figure out how to cast a powerful vote. In the current system voters need to worry about wasting their vote and should consider voting for the lesser-of-two-evils and both of these worries are still absolutely still an issue in RCV, which has high rates of ballots that are not counted in the final round, which has high rates of voters whose favorite will ultimately be eliminated but their 2nd choice will not be counted, and which has high rates of spoiled ballots that are voided due to basic voter error. 

One of the reasons we are so deeply concerned with RCV is that at first glance it appears to deliver on our goals for a better democratic process, but then it often fails to deliver on those promises. RCV is notorious for being widely oversold with rosy claims that don't pass a fact check or are seriously misleading. When voters actually use RCV they often realize this, and history shows that RCV has been repealed almost as much as it's been adopted. When this happens it hurts the voting reform movement and leaves us worse off than where we started. 
Common false claims about RCV:

  • RCV ensures a majority winner.
  • RCV eliminates vote-splitting or spoilers.
  • RCV breaks two-party domination.
  • If your favorite is eliminated your next choice will be counted.
  • RCV eliminates wasted votes. 

For more, we recommend The Limits of Ranked-Choice Voting.

 

Q&A answers by Mont Chris Hubbard and Sara Wolk