- An exhausted ballot in RCV is NOT COUNTED in the deciding round, even if it could have made a difference.
- A vote of no-preference in STAR Voting's automatic runoff round IS COUNTED and the voter intent, to support or oppose both finalists equally, was respected.
It all comes down to voter intent. Voter intent should not be corrupted by the system. The system should count your vote and it should be able to make a difference if possible and help you gain representation, but in Ranked Choice Voting that's not necessarily the case. This can often be traced back to the fact that the RCV algorithm doesn't count most of the rankings voters put down on their ballots. Which of your rankings will be counted and which will not depends on the order of elimination. As a result, it may not be safe to vote for your favorite in RCV, just like with traditional Choose-One Voting. Worse, in some cases, voting your conscience can actually backfire, resulting in a worse outcome than if you hadn't voted at all in RCV.
There are a number of different ways a vote can be wasted. Let's break it down:
Wasted Vote: Spoiled Ballots. A voided ballot which is thrown out due to voter error. Spoiled ballots are much more common in RCV than in traditional Choose-One Voting and are highest for lower-income voters and historically marginalized communities. In RCV, equal rankings, skipped rankings, and double rankings are all examples of ballots errors. In STAR Voting, equal scores and skipped scores are allowed so almost impossible to accidentally void your ballot.
Wasted Vote: Lazy voting. A vote that can’t transfer or doesn't make a difference in the runoff because the voter wasn’t as expressive as they should have been and didn’t show preference order between the finalists when they actually did have a preference. This voter behavior can happen in RCV or STAR, but it's only problematic if the voter actually had a more nuanced opinion. It's impossible to tell if a bullet voter was being intentional or lazy from looking at the ballot alone and it's worth noting that a bullet vote is not necessarily a strategic vote, though the word is often used that way.
According to FairVote as of 2021 'bullet voting' rates in RCV average 32% and vary widely based on the election circumstances with more polarized voters being the most likely to bullet vote. In STAR Voting, election data available to date shows much lower rates of bullet voting but similar trends as to who bullet votes and why.
Wasted Vote: Ballot Limitations. A vote that couldn’t transfer because the voter wasn’t allowed to rank enough candidates in RCV. Most RCV elections limit voters to only ranking a certain number of candidates. In NYC it's 5. (3, 4, 5, or 10 are common.) A voter who doesn't like the finalists may not be able to rank the finalists at all unless they strategically rank them higher than they deserve. In STAR Voting, voters are always allowed to rate as many candidates as they want to support.
Wasted Votes: Exhausted Ballots and False Majorities. In RCV, tabulation stops when a candidate is the top choice on a majority of remaining ballots, even if there was another candidate who was actually preferred on even more ballots. In RCV only a fraction of the rankings voters put down are actually counted, and it's possible that if the rest of the ballot data was considered that another candidate had an even larger majority.
In STAR Voting all ballot data is counted. In the scoring round all scores are totaled, and in the runoff every ballot counts as one vote. In STAR Voting the winner is the finalist who was preferred by a majority of voters who had a preference between those two.
In RCV, a voter's other candidates may be eliminated before their first choice, so that by the time their favorite is eliminated the vote may have nowhere to transfer to. This is called an exhausted ballot and these ballots are not counted in the deciding round of the election. On average in competitive RCV elections over 10% of ballots are exhausted. In some cases, the eliminated candidate may have actually been the candidate preferred over all others, but because RCV doesn't count most of the rankings voters put down, it can fail to elect the most popular candidate.
Compare these uncounted exhausted ballots in RCV to a vote of no-preference in STAR Voting, where a voter explicitly chose to score both finalists equally. These votes are counted and do make a difference to help advance the candidates who were more preferred. Allowing voters to give equal scores in STAR is the key to preventing spoiled ballots, and it's also key for eliminating vote-splitting between similar candidates and maintaining election accuracy in larger fields of candidates.
NOTE: For simplicity's sake, we are referring to single-winner elections above, but the same trends in STAR Voting and Ranked Choice Voting hold if we were to talk about Proportional STAR Voting and Single Transferable Vote, the proportional versions of both methods.
NOTE: In this article we are using the common meaning of a "wasted vote" for voters, "Don't waste your vote! Vote for So-And-So." In this sense a vote is wasted if it's unable to make a difference when it otherwise could have, or if the system itself is not counting a vote. Whether or not wasted votes are numerous enough to throw an election and change the winner, wasted votes leave voters feeling powerless, disenfranchised, and they are a leading reason many people cite for not voting at all. In the USA almost 50% of voters don't vote.
The term wasted vote is also used in another sense in discussions about gerrymandering or proportional representation. In that sense, in a given election the term "wasted votes" refers to the number of voters who did not vote for the winner and who may be left feeling unrepresented, even if their vote was counted and did make as much of a difference as it could have.
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