Modern elections can sometimes feel like a black box between the voting machines, proprietary software, and for-profit elections vendors. For these reasons and more, many jurisdictions (and some entire countries) still opt to tally their elections the old fashioned way: hand counting the ballots. Even for those who do opt for automated election tallying, hand counted partial recounts and audits are are great way to cross check systems and ensure that everything is working as it should. 

With STAR Voting hand counting is absolutely still an option. A well-organized group of volunteers and independent observers can make a hand count be a quick, efficient, secure, and empowering way to tally an election. 


How to hand count and tally a STAR Voting election:

Before you start: 

  • Consider hosting a training session for your team where you tally a set of test ballots from start to finish to allow people to get familiar with the process and ask questions.  
    Pro Tip: Always use fake candidate names and/or colored paper to make sure it would be impossible to confuse your test ballots and test tally sheets with real ballots and real tally sheets or real results. 
  • Count and document the total number of ballots. If you plan to split your ballots into sets to allow multiple groups to work at the same time, write down the number of ballots in each set as well. 
  • Determine the number of people you have available for your hand count and decide how many groups you will have counting at any given time. A set of ballots can be tallied very quickly with 8 people, or slightly more slowly with 4 people. 
  • If you have a large number of ballots, many people available to do the counting, and multiple rooms available to use, consider splitting the ballots into sets and have a group in each room counting their ballot set. You can add the totals from each group together later. 100 ballots in a set is a good amount for a group to process without taking a break.  
  • Each group should have a calculator, ideally one with large numbers that is easy to read from a distance. 
  • Create and print out a set of tally sheets for each group. Our tally sheets have instructions printed on them, and the process is more intuitive than it seems once you are doing it. 


Scoring Round: (8 or 4 people needed, including observers, depending on the method being used.) 

  • One person is designated the caller. This person will read off the scores for each candidate "5 - Homer, 4 - Bart, 1 - Smithers."
  • One person looks over the caller's shoulder to verify that they call the scores correctly.
  • Five people sit at a table. Each has a tally sheet with a list of the candidates and a space to tally next to their name. The first person marks a tally for each 1 star rating for any candidate. The second person marks a tally for each 2 star rating for any candidate. The third person marks a tally for each 3 star rating for any candidate. The fourth person marks a tally for each 4 star rating for any candidate. The fifth person marks a tally for each 5 star rating for any candidate. Zero star rankings and blanks do not need to be tallied. 
    Pro tip: Giving each tallier a strip of paper or straight-edge to slide up and down can be helpful for keeping the rows for each candidate straight while marking the tallies.
    Alternate option: If time is less of an issue and/or the number of people is more limited, you can have one person can mark all five tally sheets.
  • After each score is read and the corresponding tallier has recorded it, the tallier will verbally confirm they are done by saying "okay" or similar. The caller waits for the okay before calling the next score out. 
  • One person (or more if desired) observes the talliers and makes sure they make a tally for each score read allowed. 
  • Once all ballots in the set have been read:
    • On each tally sheet, count the number of tallies for each candidate, then multiply the number of tallies by the number for each sheet. (For the three star tally sheet multiply the number of tallies by 3, etc.) This will give you the total for each candidate for each tally sheet. Sum the totals for each candidate from each tally sheet to get the final total score for each candidate. 
  • If you had multiple ballot sets, sum the total scores for each candidate from each ballot set to get your final totals. 
  • The two highest scoring candidates overall are your finalists who advance to the automatic runoff. 

Automatic Runoff: (2 people needed, including an observer.)

  • Sort the ballots into three piles - One for each finalist and one pile for no-preference votes. Each ballot counts as a vote for the finalist who was scored higher on that ballot. If both candidates were scored equally that ballot is counted as a vote of no-preference in the runoff.
  • One person looks at each ballot and determines the finalist who was preferred, then puts it in the corresponding pile.
  • A second person watches to ensure there are no mistakes made.
  • Pro Tip: It's easy to make a paper cutout or stencil that goes over the ballot and covers all candidates but the two finalists. This can make it easier to compare the finalists scores at a glance, especially for people without great vision.
  • Count the number of ballots in each pile. These are your vote totals.


Pilots and Case Studies:

A good ​pilot of ​hand counted elections and alternative voting methods was conducted by the Multnomah County Democratic Party in 2019 in ​Portland, Oregon​.​ At ​the June monthly meeting, presentations on RCV and STAR​ were held, followed by a Q and A​. Delegates were each given an envelope with three ballots. All three ballots had the 2020 Democratic Primary presidential candidates​.​ ​O​ne ballot used Plurality voting, one used STAR Voting, and one used Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). Participants were also asked to fill out a survey of which method they preferred using. The following weekend, a group of volunteers hand tallied the results using all three systems and published a write up on the process and conclusions. ​The ​​Multnomah County Democratic party later voted to adopt STAR Voting for all internal elections and has been using STAR Voting since. ​

Later that year the OR Democratic Party Election Integrity Caucus hosted another pilot which was designed as a stress test for STAR Voting using a huge field of candidates, paper ballots, and automated tabulation. The pilot researched dozens of options and then settled on Remark software, which is open sourced, compatible with all the election integrity protocols needed, and offers all the bells and whistles of a professional election vendor at a highly competitive price. The Oregon Democratic Party later voted (by a supermajority) to adopt STAR Voting for the election of the Oregon's 2020 Presidential Delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

Videos of both the hand count and automated tabulation pilots can be found in this playlist from Equal Vote.