Questions from Candace Avalos and the PDX Charter Commission Form of Voting Workgroup

On October 28th, 2021, the Portland Charter Review Commission Subcommittee on "Form of Voting" met with Sara Wolk, Executive Director at Equal Vote and also Mike Alfoni with Oregon RCV over zoom to discuss and compare STAR Voting and Ranked Choice Voting. To watch that video, click the image below. Questions had been sent to both groups in advance, and written answers from Equal Vote can be found below as well. 

Following the meeting, the subcommittee voted to recommend STAR Voting to the Portland Charter Reform Committee for Portland, OR elections. Their presentation to the other commissioners on STAR Voting and why they chose it took place on November 6th, 2021. 


Click image above to watch the full discussion on the commission's questions 


How do these ranked choice options function in a vote by mail state? Is there anything significantly different compared to states that vote at the ballot box?  


Vote by mail in general is possible with either RCV or STAR Voting, but there are major differences in cost and implications due to the ballot formatting constraints.

With STAR Voting, the ballot design is always the same 0-5 star format regardless of how many candidates are in the race, and voters will always be able to weigh in on as many or as few candidates as they want, showing preference order and level of support with a high degree of resolution. This is especially important because PDX often has large and competitive fields of candidates. 

With RCV, the ballot design becomes complex in races with a large field of candidates, and any of the possible solutions to the issues from this present new issues of their own, in my opinion. In order for RCV to do its best possible job, voters need to rank all the candidates, but having more than 6 or so bubbles on the ballot can lead to a very long and complex ballot design and increased voter error and general overwhelm. The Bay Area limits voters to ranking 10 candidates only, and NYC limits voters to ranking only 5. This means that voters who would not honestly rank the frontrunners in their top 5 will have exhausted ballots (wasted votes,) or else they will need to vote strategically.

If PDX did opt for a longer RCV ballot (top 10 for example) that may still mean that in races like the recent Position 2 primary which had 22 candidates that voters are still only able to rank under half of them, which will severely impact the accuracy of the outcome. This ballot design would also add a significant amount of length and pages to the ballot, which would significantly increase both the cost to tabulate the election, the time before results would come back, and the cost to print the ballots themselves. 

In summary, STAR Voting offers a shorter and simpler ballot format without limiting voter voice and expression. This would translate to a major difference in terms of logistics and cost both. 

How do these voting methods affect nonpartisan elections? 


Both STAR and RCV can easily be used in nonpartisan elections. The main difference on this matter is vote-splitting in the large fields that a nonpartisan general election with no primary could create.

In general, vote-splitting and spoiled elections are more likely to happen the bigger the field of candidates, and are more likely to throw the election if one faction/party runs more candidates than the other.

RCV has high estimated rates of vote-splitting in races where there are 3 or more competitive candidates. (“[IRV] can cause spoilers in up to 1 in 5 elections or worse when there are more candidates according to expert analysis.”) STAR Voting on the other hand eliminates vote-splitting by allowing voters to show equal support for their favorites or to show that they prefer all candidates in their coalition over all candidates on the other side.

To some extent, accurate elections in large fields of candidates depend on voters being expressive and rating or ranking as many candidates as possible (though in either system truly nonviable candidates can be ignored with no impact.) It will take voter education and outreach to retrain voters that it's safe to do so, and Equal Vote is committed to supporting that effort. but it's also important to note that STAR Voting actively and transparently incentives the type of voter behavior that will make elections as accurate and representative as possible. Voters in STAR should show their preference order and level of support for their candidates.

Ranked Choice voting on the other hand can and does incentives some problematic voter behaviors including lesser-evil voting, or not voting for one's honest favorite in competitive races. Whether or not this behavior will be common, the fact that it is incentivized means that voters should be strategic in RCV races in order to get the best possible outcomes. 


In STAR voting, how do you avoid candidates winning who have less 5 star votes? In other words, what are the scenarios in which someone with several more 2s 3s 4s can win over someone that has a lot of 5s? 


STAR voting is counted in two rounds. The first round measures the stars given to each candidate, and the second round measures how many votes each finalist got. (Your ballot is counted as one full vote for the finalist you scored higher. The runoff is binary and basically works like a simulated top 2 general election, but you don't need to vote again.)

In order for a candidate to win in STAR they need to have both a high rating and be strongly supported, (in the top 2,) and they also need to have the support of a majority of voters (or at least a majority of all voters who have a preference between the finalists.)

STAR Voting measures both quality of support, and quantity of supporters. You have to do well at both to win. 

For example, a mediocre candidate without a strong supporter base would likely not be able to score in the top 2 candidates. A polarizing candidate who got mostly 5s and 0s would also have a lower average than a less polarizing candidate and would also not be likely to score in the top 2 candidates.

What would be the challenges implementing STAR/RCV on a city level? What would be required to make that transition? 


Adopting STAR Voting for PDX would be groundbreaking and would be the first municipal adoption of the system. 

To answer this question in 2017, when we launched the STAR Voting for MultCo ballot initiative, I scheduled a meeting with Tim Scott, our Director of Elections. He explained the logistics of the switch and expressed that it would be doable, that cost likely would fall within the existing budget, and that he was confident that he could take care of the logistics before the next election cycle if it were adopted. 

Implementing STAR Voting would require the elections vendor (Clear Ballot) to add a STAR Voting software update to their voting machines. No new hardware would be needed. This code is short and simple and a proof of concept has already been written and implemented on other platforms. The software update would then need to be certified. This would be one time upfront cost and is something elections vendors do routinely anyways. The other task and expense would be designing and formatting the new ballot. 

It's important to note that the cost savings of switching to STAR and eliminating races from the primary ballot would offset the upfront expense within a couple of election cycles and would be a net savings for the city. This could be magnified even further if Metro and the county also eliminated low-turnout elections and/or off-year primaries.

The tech team at Equal Vote would provide all necessary resources on the technical specifications for a good implementation effort, including recommended ballot instructions, descriptions, protocols, implementation details and so on. 


Do your organizations have funding and capacity to help with voter education if one of these voting methods is implemented? 


Yes, Equal Vote is absolutely committed to supporting the voter education and outreach efforts that would be required for an inclusive, effective, and accessible voter education campaign. We've been developing materials and poll-testing and refining our messaging for years, and all of our resources and staff would be at the disposal of the city to ensure that the process goes as smoothly as possible. Additionally, we just partnered with an amazing design firm who can help produce great looking and engaging materials quickly and effectively. 

Ideally, Equal Vote would partner with the city and the media on this effort and would have staff and funding dedicated to the project, but we would also be willing and able to lead this effort ourselves if needed. Either way, we are committed to ensuring that nothing and nobody falls through the cracks. We are committed to providing multilingual materials in multiple formats, (print, digital, audio, video, etc) for all sorts of platforms, as well hosting in-person events and outreach efforts out in the community, and providing support and trainings during the election itself to ensure that voters understand and trust the new system and that they know how to STAR vote. 

Education and outreach already makes up the bulk of our annual budget, and this project would be the top priority for those efforts as well as an investment in creating content that could be used by other municipalities who are also looking at adopting STAR in the near future. In addition to our current education budget, our top supporter has pledged significant additional dedicated funding for the first adoption's educational campaign.

 Can STAR voting be used by candidates or coalitions of candidates to “game” the system for tactical advantage. 


In STAR Voting, candidates are incentivized to form a coalition with each other to encourage their voters to show that they prefer their coalition over other candidates. This is one reason why STAR (and RCV as well) would help promote more positive campaigns and a less polarized political discourse. This isn't "gaming the system" and would be  a good thing. It might even be effective at combating political violence which can stem from the heated us-against-them demonization of the other that we commonly see in politics.

The current Choose-One Plurality system is the most gameable and most vulnerable to strategic voting of all voting methods out there, and any alternative voting reform would present a significant improvement. Currently, voters need to be strategic and vote for those who seem "electable" to avoid wasting their votes. Candidates and parties can leverage the spoiler effect to coerce voters into not voting for their favorite or supporting a lesser-evil candidate to prevent a worst-case-scenario candidate from winning. STAR Voting would eliminate these issues entirely.

Currently candidates or parties are also able to game the system by intentionally running or funding spoiler candidates to split the vote. STAR Voting would eliminate this.

Currently, candidates and parties can leverage low-turnout primaries to effectively win races before the electorate is even paying attention, and this is fairly easy to do with targeted Get Out The Vote efforts that can lead to unrepresentative winners. STAR Voting goes the furthest to eliminate the need for a primary in the first place, and to ensure that winners are representative of as many voters as possible.

No voting method can entirely eliminate strategic voting or strategic incentives 100% of the time, but in STAR Voting the behavior that is incentivized is an honest and expressive vote, where voters (as instructed) give their favorite(s) 5 stars, give their last choice(s) 0 stars, and show preference order and level of support for their candidates. 

Note that STAR Voting was invented specifically to address valid concerns with strategic voting and gameability in both Score voting and RCV, and it has been shown to do so using statistical analysis, which confirmed the conclusions that make sense logically as well. 



What are possible ways that voters can “game” the system using STAR or RCV (i.e., giving low scores to strong opposition candidates or low scores to every opposition candidate)? 


In STAR Voting "giving low scores to strong opposition candidates or low scores to every opposition candidate" isn't gaming the system, that would be an honest and expressive vote for most people and would lead to good representative outcomes. 

Voters who strongly dislike the opposition should absolutely give their worst-case-scenario 0 stars, and give anyone else they also want to prevent from winning at all costs 0 stars too. If there is an opposition candidate who is less bad, voters could give them 1 star, which would ensure that if it came down to a runoff between their worst case scenario and a less-bad alternative their vote would be able to help prevent the worst outcome. 

This type of voting would have massive implications to empower currently marginalized voters. Currently if you are in the minority and know your candidate can't win, your vote literally has no impact. With STAR voting even if none of your favorites can win, your vote can help prevent your worst case scenario and make a difference. For example, a Democratic voter-of-color in a deep red state would be able to give good scores to their (non-viable) favorites, give 1 star (or as many stars as they deserve) to a family-values conservative, and help prevent a far right candidate running a campaign based on hate from winning. 

Strategic tactics such as not voting for your favorite and voting lesser-evil instead are not incentivized in STAR Voting.

Bullet voting (giving 5 to your favorite and 0 to all others) is not incentivized and is likely to backfire in STAR because voters need to show a preference between the finalists to ensure their preference can be counted in the runoff.

The only "strategic voting" which could be effective or incentivized in STAR voting is to exaggerate the difference in scores between the frontrunners, while still showing your honest preference order, but it's questionable if this kind of behavior should even be lumped in with dishonest strategic voting behaviors, as a ballot like that would still translate to an honest ranking or an honest plurality vote and would still result in good ballot data and help elect representative winners.

Studies on strategic voting for various methods indicate that even if voters are strategic in STAR, or if one faction bullet votes and the other doesn't, that results would still be more accurate than the current system or RCV under ideal voter behavior. 

Would either of these systems increase the costs of an election by, for instance, necessitating that campaigns also target opposition voters to get second and third place votes? 


We expect that the impact on the cost of running a campaign for both STAR voting and RCV would be similar, since both are preference voting methods. We don't expect that either system would increase the cost to run for candidates, but we do expect the opposite if either system is adopted at the same time the primary election is eliminated. 

Running a single campaign for the general election would likely be both cheaper and make running for office more accessible to candidates who would have been unable to take a year or more off work to focus on a long drawn out two election long campaign season. 

Preferential voting methods do incentivize candidates to reach out to a broader set of candidates than they might have otherwise done, but we don't think this will add to the overall money to run a campaign, but rather would represent a shift in the allocation of campaign resources. Currently, many campaigns spend a significant amount of time, money, and effort on voter targeting tools like VAN, and other canvassing databases to help them identify and target their supporters only. These tools are complex and the reliance on being skilled at using them presents a major barrier for new candidates or candidates who are running without a party backing or an experienced campaign staff. The fact that a less targeted campaign could work just as well with STAR or RCV could mean that less experienced candidates would be more able to compete with less money in their campaign fund.

STAR Voting and RCV would also discourage negative campaigning and attack ads, both of which can be very expensive. Ultimately changing to a preference voting method like STAR would require campaigns to change their strategy, but we believe the impacts would be a net positive for candidates and for the voter experience as well. 

Lastly, I'd like to take a minute to explain why we believe STAR Voting would help combat the influence of money in politics. Currently voters have a very strong incentive to vote strategically for the candidates they believe are the most viable. Voters (and the media) largely judge candidate viability based on the amount of money they raise and their subsequent name familiarity and press coverage. Voting methods which mitigate vote-splitting and the spoiler effect like RCV, or which eliminate them like STAR would have a massive impact to free voters to vote their conscience regardless if they think their candidate has the war chest needed to win. We believe that this would have a massive impact to help break the glass ceiling in politics and level the playing field. 



Authored by Sara Wolk