Could STAR Voting slay the “electability” dragon?

Sara Wolk
6 min readMar 30, 2020

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. Spoiler alert — the candidate who is deemed the most “electable” is almost always the one who’s raised the most money.

Choose One Only ballot: Options- Evil, Lesser Evil, Favorite.

But 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 simply don’t.

In a recent poll from Avalanche, cited by Nate Silver of 538, voters were asked two distinct questions: Who they would vote for if the 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.

Why do 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, the very real phenomenon where an unpopular and polarizing candidate can win, even though the majority would have preferred any number of others.

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 called the 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 your full vote always goes to the finalist you prefer, so even if your favorite can’t win, it’s safe to vote your conscience.

An example of a filled in STAR ballot using Star Wars characters.

Like a primary and a general all in one, voters would only need to vote once in November for non-partisan races. As a bonus, skipping the low turnout primary leads to more representative elections and saves 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?

Instant Runoff Voting (commonly called Ranked Choice Voting, or RCV), is a reform which first became popular over 100 years ago, and it has had some major successes. With Ranked Choice voters rank candidates instead of rate them.

An example ballot for both STAR Voting and RCV side by side.

Unfortunately, despite being much better than traditional Choose-One-Only voting, RCV efforts have frequently resulted in partisan stalemates, unintended outcomes, major logistical and security issues, and repeals.

STAR Voting was invented to address these issues 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.

3 concerns with Ranked Choice Voting:

  1. Ranked Choice doesn’t solve the main problem, vote splitting- Ranked Choice Voting only eliminates the Spoiler Effect in races with only two viable candidates. If there are three or more candidates in the race the system can ignore voters preferences and fail to elect the candidate who was preferred over all others. In RCV not all rankings are counted, and depending on the order of elimination it’s possible for your vote to actually backfire, helping to elect your least favorite candidate. The more candidates the more likely this is to happen.
  2. Logistical viability- With RCV, all ballots need to be centrally tabulated in order to determine who is eliminated in each round. This means that chain of custody is lost for larger scale elections, and that local audits and recounts are impossible.
  3. Wasted votes and exhausted ballots: RCV is usually explained in simplified terms: “If your first choice is eliminated your next choice will be counted,” but the devil is in the details. That’s only true if your other candidates are still in the running. Some voters will have their first choices eliminated and the rest of their ballots ignored, and those voters are at a serious disadvantage. Voters who prefer a strong underdog are the most likely to have their ballot “exhausted,” meaning that even though that voter had a preference between the finalists, their ballot is not counted in the deciding round.

    RCV’s many round elimination process can waste votes, runs into constitutionality issues in some states, and physically leaves some ballots in the discard pile.

Luckily, these problems can be 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.

The STAR Voting origin story

STAR Voting was first conceived out of a conversation between founding members of three leading voting reform groups from around the nation at the Equal Vote Conference in Eugene, OR. A hybrid of Score and Instant Runoff Voting, STAR Voting addresses the criticisms of both, while going further to deliver on the goals that advocates from both sides of the debate were most excited about.

Studies from the Center for Election Science show that STAR Voting tops the charts in terms of both election accuracy (measured as Voter Satisfaction Efficiency) and resiliency to strategic voting. A score of 1.00 represents a perfect voting method where the candidate who best represents the will of the voters wins 100% of the time.

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. Advocates are eager to add STAR Voting to the package.

Eugene and Portland, Oregon have been at the epicenter for STAR Voting for the last few years, with adoption in Eugene and Lane County looking likely for 2020 if trends hold. With chapters of the Equal Vote Coalition springing up around the country, with multiple parties and groups adopting STAR Voting for internal elections, and with the colossal 2020 Democratic Primary field perfectly illustrating a perfect storm fail scenario for our current system, election reform may be finally coming into it’s own. After all, necessity is the mother of invention.

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



Sara Wolk

Systems design, electoral reform, music, regenerative agriculture, natural building.