Strategic STAR Voting?


In elections, Strategic Voting, also known as tactical or insincere voting, occurs when some voters cast ballots that do not reflect their sincere preferences in the hope that such a vote will obtain a better outcome. Because The Equal Vote Coalition promotes Honesty as among our core criteria for voting method efficacy, a look at what strategic incentives are created by various voting methods is key to determining their viability for contested public elections. Stated again, the first of our five voting method criteria is defined as follows:

Honesty: Can the voter safely express her honest opinion on the ballot, and to what level does the system incentivize  insincere strategic voting?

There are four distinct types of insincere voting that are possible in rated and ranked voting systems:

Strong Insincerity

A choice is strongly insincere if the voter offers a higher level of support to at least one candidate than that offered to his or her most preferred candidate. In keeping with the seriousness of this offense, the authors of this paper call it "decapitation"; other sources call it "compromising." In more modern parlance, this is known as Favorite Betrayal.

The incentive for strong insincerity is among the very critical defects of our current "support only one" voting method. If your true favorite candidate is not one of the two front-runners in the election, there is a strong incentive to tactically support the one of those two the voter finds least distasteful (i.e. the "lesser evil") rather than "wasting the vote" on a "spoiler" candidate.

Despite the claims of the method's advocates, strong insincerity can also be incentivized under RCV/IRV. The following video demonstrates how strong insincerity can come into play if the voter isn't sure that her true favorite is either a very strong nor a very weak candidate:


FairVote's article on Australian IRV elections confirms that savvy voters cast, and major political parties encourage, strongly insincere ballots.

STAR Voting never encourages strong insincerity in balloting. In order for an honest vote of maximum support for a true favorite to create a worse outcome for the voter under STAR, that support would have to knock a more viable "lesser evil" out of the automatic runoff. Because viability is highly correlated with overall score, a voter who fears her favorite and "lesser evil" are vying for second position in the runoff will be highly motivated to send the stronger of the two to the runoff in order to have the best chance of defeating the greater evil.


Weak Insincerity

Weak Insincerity is also known as "burying" or "skipping." A vote is weakly insincere if it includes offering maximum support among the choices to the voter's most preferred candidate, but skips support for a less preferred candidate in favor of candidates even less preferred. Voting methods including the Borda Count are vulnerable weak insincerity.

Although FairVote has hypothesized that voters will be tactically incentivized to "bury" a strong consensus candidate, this analysis does not hold up to reasonable scrutiny. The reality is that under STAR, voters are only likely to promote other challengers they like more than that strong consensus choice for a very simple reason: promoting any other candidate the voter likes less over a strong consensus choice increases the likelihood that the voter's first choice will get squeezed out of the runoff. And should that happen, the voter's full runoff vote will go to the least-preferred candidate. Should multiple factions adopt this strategy as FairVote suggest would have happened in a recent French election, all but one faction would see a worse outcome than had they voted sincerely. No voting system prevents voters from trying to be sneaky, but STAR Voting does a great job of giving no advantage for it.

"The Effect of Approval Balloting on Strategic Voting Under Alternative Decision Rules" confirms this conclusion, suggesting that burying is only effective in a multistage score process if the voter holds three key beliefs, (1) and (2) with great confidence: (1) that his favorite can make the runoff, (2) that his favorite can beat a third or lower preference candidate, (3) and that he is not sure his favorite can beat his second favorite in the runoff. Under STAR Voting, the voter who believes (3) cannot believe (1) with great confidence: if you aren't sure your favorite can beat your second choice, your first choice is in play for the second spot in the runoff. Adding any support to a less preferred candidate in this scenario simply increases the likelihood your own favorite will be squeezed out and that your runoff vote will go to someone you really don't like.


Restrictive Sincerity

Restrictive sincerity, also known as Tactical Minimization or "truncation," is where you decrease your support for some candidates other than your favorite. Pure Approval and Score voting systems are said to encourage tactical "bullet voting" - supporting just one's favorite candidate and dishonestly voting 0 for all the others in order to give the favored candidate the best chance of winning.

STAR Voting's runoff step corrects for strategic restrictive sincerity in two ways: first, by incentivizing voters to differentiate scores of multiple candidates to have a meaningful say in the runoff, and by equalizing the outcome influence of all voters in the runoff step.


Expansive Sincerity

A choice is expansively sincere if the voter offers higher support for secondary choices than would otherwise constitute a truly sincere vote. The extreme of expansive sincerity, Tactical Maximization, is where you increase support for candidates other than your favorite because you think your favorite is weak or you want to hedge your bet. In addition to the folks who say Score Voting systems are vulnerable to strategic "bullet voting", there are those who say the optimal Score vote is pretty much the opposite: that voters will gain strategic advantage by maximizing support for one perceived front runner and all the candidates the voter likes more than that one.

As above, STAR Voting's runoff step corrects for this strategic distortion in two ways: first, by incentivizing voters to differentiate scores of multiple candidates to have a meaningful say in the runoff, which amplifies the voice of those who do not maximally vote the top two into the runoff step.


The Science of Strategic Voting:

Strategic voting and its impacts can be difficult to quantify exactly, but statistical modeling using simulated voters and realistic voter behavior patterns can help determine what kinds of impacts to expect. This modeling is particularly helpful when comparing voting methods. Strategic voting incentives are measured as a ratio of how often strategic voting works for an individual voter and how often strategic voting will backfire.

The graphic below, from former Vice Chair of the Center for Election Science and Harvard PhD in Statistics Dr. Jameson Quinn's "Voter Satisfaction Efficiency" study shows that for STAR Voting this ratio is close to 1:1, while for IRV the ratio is 3:1, and Choose One Plurality voting displaying the worst strategic incentives by far with a 18:1 incentive to vote strategically.



The "Voter Satisfaction Efficiency" studies also look at the overall impacts of strategic voting on election outcomes and overall accuracy. These studies show that in "Choose-One" Plurality voting, the current voting method in much of the world, outcomes are more representative when voters are strategic and Choose-One voting strongly incentivizes strategic voting.

In contrast, Instant Runoff, Score Voting, and STAR Voting, as well as most other preference voting methods achieve the most representative outcomes when voters as a whole are honest, even though not all of these methods incentivize honest voting at the individual level, as we saw above.

These studies underscore the conclusion that if we hope to achieve accurate and representative elections we must incentivize honest voting, both for the individual voter, and for the electorate as a whole. Of the voting methods which are being seriously proposed in the USA, STAR Voting tops the charts at both.



While no voting system can entirely eliminate strategic incentives in every situation, STAR Voting strongly incentivizes voters to show their honest preference order, minimizes incentives for tactical voting, and the runoff mitigates the impacts of strategic voting even if some voters try to "game the system."

The key is the STAR Voting runoff. There is no need to strategically give your lesser-evil a full five stars. In the runoff, every ballot is one vote, regardless of the scores given originally. For this reason the runoff works as an equalizer, ensuring that even voters whose favorites were unable to win are still able to have an say in the election results. 

At the end of the day voters want to be able to vote their conscience and they want their votes to be fairly and equally counted. STAR Voting makes that possible.