Could STAR Voting slay the “electability” dragon?


We’re all too familiar with the landscape: Toxic campaign ads, candidates who do nothing but ask for your money and tell you what you want to hear, and at the end of the day one narrative to rule them all- don’t waste your vote on a candidate who isn’t “electable.”

This self-fulfilling prophecy puts the power of American politics soundly in the hands of those who get to decide who is “electable.” The result is a political landscape owned by big money donors and corporate media, but — spoiler alert — the candidate deemed the most “electable” is usually the one who raised the most money.

Why does this electability narrative have so much power? Some people do vote their conscience, but the data on the subject is crystal clear: Many voters don’t.

In the lead up to the 2020 presidential primary, an Avalanche Insights poll from 2019 cited by Nate Silver of 538, asked voters two distinct questions: Who they would vote for if the 2020 Democratic primary was today, and who they would pick if they had a magic wand. The difference was stunning, showing a massive 12% leg up for the perceived front-runner compared to the next runner up, despite the fact that he would have been tied for second place if people had simply voted for their favorite.

A poll designed to measure the impact of electability asked likely 2020 democratic primary voters two questions: Who they would make president if they had a magic wand (purple), and who they would actually vote for (orange).


Why would so many people vote for a candidate who is not their favorite? Whether or not voters realize it, strategic voters are performing evasive maneuvers for good reason. When voters can only vote for one candidate and are unable to show preference order and degree of support, our elections often fall victim to the Spoiler Effect, a very real phenomenon where an unpopular or polarizing candidate can win even though the majority would have preferred any number of other options.

To election scientists and politicos this is nothing new. Experts have been in consensus for well over a century that our current system is the worst way to conduct elections with more than two candidates. (It’s creates a Two-Party System because it is only accurate with two candidates in the race.) The good news is that this catastrophic problem is a relatively easy fix. No need to change the constitution, get the Supreme Court or Congress to take action, or get all the states onboard at once.

The solution: STAR Voting.

STAR stands for Score-Then-Automatic-Runoff, and that’s exactly how it works. You score candidates from zero (worst) up to 5 stars (best). The two highest scoring candidates advance, and the finalist preferred by the majority wins.

With STAR Voting, whether or not your favorite can win, your full vote always goes to the finalist you prefer. Even if your favorite can’t win it’s safe to vote your conscience.

STAR Voting works a lot like a primary and a general all in one, so in many cases a primary would no longer be necessary. For non-partisan races, voters would only need to vote once in November. In many cases, especially for local races, primaries are notoriously plagued by lower voter turnout, so as a bonus, skipping these kinds of primaries leads directly to more representative elections and saves taxpayers money in the process.

It’s an elegant solution to an age old problem which takes it one step farther than older reforms like Ranked Choice Voting.

STAR eliminates vote-splitting and the Spoiler Effect so there’s no need to be strategic. Just show your preference order on your ballot. If your favorite can’t win, your vote automatically goes to the finalist you prefer.


Ranked Choice Voting has momentum, why not just focus on passing that?

Ranked Choice Voting (sometimes known as Instant Runoff Voting), is a reform which first became popular over 100 years ago, and it has had some major successes. With Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) voters rank candidates instead of rate them. Unfortunately, despite being better than traditional Choose-One-Only voting in some ways, RCV efforts have frequently resulted in high rates of ballots voided due to voter errors, partisan stalemates, unintended outcomes, major logistical and security issues, and repeals.

STAR Voting was invented to address these and other issues with RCV while still delivering on the core goals. Both RCV and STAR can offer more positive campaigns, less polarization, better voter choice, and more representative outcomes.


Five concerns with Ranked Choice Voting:

  1. It's more complicated than it seems: Claims like "It's as easy as 1-2-3" are wishful thinking at best. Ranking itself is fairly easy for voters (especially if there aren't many candidates and if a voter has clear preferences,) but when there are more options than available ranks on the ballot, or if a voter likes some candidates more or less equally, it can get tricky. Because of the way ballots are counted in RCV equal rankings and skipped rankings both can result in a voided uncountable ballot. Neither of these would be errors under STAR Voting. "Votes in ranked choice races are nearly 10 times more likely to be rejected due to an improper mark than votes in non-ranked choice races." When we move on to looking at the the logistical details, legal considerations, counting process, and complex results tables, RCV is anything but simple.

  2. Wasted votes: RCV is usually explained in over-simplified terms: “If your first choice is eliminated your next choice will be counted,” but your next choice will only be counted if your other candidates are still in the running and if the election hasn't been called yet. Voters whose favorite comes in second place will never have their next choice counted. In other cases, a voter's second or third choices might be gone already by the time their vote is ready to transfer. In RCV, most of the rankings people put down are never counted. 

    Voters who prefer a strong underdog are the most likely to have their ballots discarded, meaning that even though that voter had relevant preferences, their ballot isn't counted in the deciding round. In RCV, a winner is declared if a candidate is preferred on a majority of remaining ballots, but it's not uncommon for the number of discarded ballots to be larger than the win margin. 

  3. Ranked Choice doesn’t solve the main problem with the current system- It's not safe to vote for your favorite: The Spoiler Effect is a common election pathology in which a candidate who was actually opposed by the majority can win because the majority faction ended up divided and conquered. The Spoiler-Effect is the driver behind strategic voting, and it's the reason that in RCV, just like in the current system, it's not necessarily safe to vote for your honest favorite.

    Let's take a closer look to understand how the Spoiler Effect is possible in a system which claims to guarantee majority preferred winners. In Ranked Choice, votes are counted in rounds, and in each round only a voter's top choice is counted. If a number of similar candidates run it's easy for them to split their faction's first choice votes between them.

    In essence, RCV works just like the current Choose-One system, but repeated over and over, and vote-splitting and the Spoiler Effect can happen in any or every round of the tabulation process, allowing a candidate who was actually widely preferred to be prematurely eliminated before their other rankings were counted. 

  4. Legal and logistical viability: Election laws generally require local tabulation and audits, but with RCV, all ballots (or at least all ballot data) needs to be centrally tabulated in order to determine who is eliminated in each round. This means the vote processing and counting is much slower than with other systems, chain of custody is harder to maintain for larger scale elections, meaningful local or precinct level results are not available, and it's usually impossible to conduct audits and recounts at the local or precinct level.

    The intricacies of RCV’s tabulation means it can also run into serious legality and constitutionality issues jurisdictions and states which require the candidate who receives the most votes to win, which require a top-two runoff, or which require winners to have a majority of all votes cast. Though experts are not in agreement, there are also compelling arguments that RCV's wasted vote issues mean that it violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. 

  5. Oversold claims about RCV risk backlash against voting reform in general: RCV advocates have spent the last few decades promoting RCV with claims that go far beyond what the system can actually promise, and misinformation is now so widespread that even generally good sources often get it wrong. The reality is that these issues are hard to explain on paper, but make much more sense when they happen in a real election voters are paying attention to.

    Common false claims about RCV include: "In RCV it's safe to vote your conscience", “If your first choice is eliminated your next choice will be counted”, "RCV eliminates wasted votes", "RCV breaks two-party domination", and "RCV eliminates vote-splitting and the spoiler effect".

    When voters realize they have been lied to, it's often not long before the system is repealed and voters are soured on the idea of election reform in general. While some advocates argue that the "ends justify the means" or that RCV is better than the current system, research suggests that outcomes with RCV are only marginally better than with Top-Two elections, and that other options including STAR, Ranked Robin, and Approval plus Top-Two can all deliver significantly more representative outcomes than either the current system or RCV.  


Luckily, these problems are easily avoided. With STAR Voting, all data from all ballots is counted. STAR is counted in two rounds only, using basic addition. STAR Voting eliminates vote-splitting and the Spoiler Effect. Every voter is guaranteed an equally-weighted-vote, and the system does not play favorites. STAR Voting is naturally compatible with election laws around the country, and is a legal and viable option that can be adopted nationwide.


The STAR Voting origin story

STAR Voting was first conceived out of a conversation between founding members of the three leading voting reform groups from around the nation at the first ever Equal Vote Conference. A hybrid approach that uses a score ballot plus and instant runoff, STAR Voting addresses valid concerns with both Score Voting and Ranked Choice (originally known as Instant Runoff), while going further to deliver on the goals that advocates from both sides of the debate were most excited about.

Oregon has long been known as a national leader in voting reform, so the recent surge of activity around STAR Voting is just the latest in a long list of cutting-edge innovation. Oregon was the first to implement the ballot initiative process, vote by mail, and motor voter automatic voter registration and advocates are eager to add STAR Voting to the package. Now, with chapters of the Equal Vote Coalition springing up around the country, election reform may be finally coming into its own. After all, necessity is the mother of invention.

Peer reviewed research: STAR Voting tops the charts in both election accuracy and resiliency to strategic voting in models simulating realistic election scenarios.




Learn more about STAR Voting:
and The Equal Vote Coalition:
Host a poll or election using STAR Voting:
Email [email protected] to get involved

The full original version of this article was published on Medium, March 30th, 2020.
A shortened version of this article was published in The Fulcrum April 27, 2020.
Last edit 1/8/24.