- 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.
Most people are surprised to learn that the RCV algorithm doesn't actually count most of the rankings voters put down on their ballots. Which of your rankings will be counted and which are 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:
Voter Error = 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 ballot errors. In STAR Voting, equal scores and skipped scores are allowed, and with protocols in place to cover the scenario where a voter fills in too many bubbles, it becomes very difficult to accidentally void your ballot.
Lazy voting = A vote that can’t make a difference in the deciding round because the voter wasn’t as expressive as they should have been and didn’t show a preference 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. When voters only rank one candidate it's called a Bullet Vote, and if a voter doesn't rank as many candidates as they were allowed that's called a truncated ballot. It's impossible to tell if a voter intentional showing that they had no preference or if they were being lazy from looking at the ballot alone.
According to FairVote as of 2021 'bullet voting' rates in RCV averaged 32% and varied widely based on the election circumstances. More polarized voters are the most likely to bullet vote. In STAR Voting, election data available to date shows lower rates of bullet voting but similar trends as to who bullet votes and why.
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.
False Majorities = In RCV, a candidate may have a majority on remaining ballots, but not a true majority of all ballots cast. 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 it would have shown 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.
Exhausted Untransferable Ballots = A ballot that cannot be counted in the deciding round of the election even though the voter ranked multiple candidates. In RCV, a voter's other choices 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 a type of exhausted ballot. 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.
Nonexhausted Untransferred Ballots = A ballot where the voters top remaining choice made it to the deciding round, lost, and the voters next choices were not counted. RCV tabulation is almost unilaterally explained as follows: If your favorite is eliminated, your next choice will be counted. This is false for all voters who's favorite makes it to the final round but losses. Many see it as fundamentally unfair that some voters who have their top choice eliminated will have their next choice counted, but that others will not. This bias consistently puts strong underdog type candidates at a disadvantage and favors the supports of more polarizing and unpopular candidates. In some cases this can actually change the winner and lead to the election of a candidate who wasn't actually preferred over the other options. In STAR Voting every vote is counted in the scoring round and also in the runoff.
- Nonmonotonicity = Some close competitive RCV elections exhibit a phenomenon where a voters vote backfires and has the opposite of the voters intended effect. In these scenarios ranking a candidate higher can hurt them and/or ranking them lower can help them. A number of real world elections exhibiting this extremely harmful and counterintuitive phenomenon have been bad enough to throw the election to a less preferred candidate. No other serious voting reform proposed has this issue. It's exclusive to RCV.
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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