STAR Voting: The Quest for Democracy

Sara Wolk
13 min readJul 24, 2018

Imagine if you could vote your conscience and never vote for the lesser of two evils again… What if you knew that your vote would make a difference, even if your favorite wasn’t going to win? What if our voting system wasn’t rigged to favor some voters and parties over others and we were all on an even playing field? The basic principle of democracy is “For the people, by the people”. If we can’t safely express what we want, then this is not a Democracy!

The problem:

We all know that democracy is broken. In our current voting system we have no way of knowing if the candidate who won even had the most support. People are afraid of wasting their vote, betraying their conscience, or worse, helping to elect their worst case scenario. Many voters are so discouraged that they don’t vote at all.

Known as Plurality or First-Past-The-Post, our voting system is riddled with pitfalls that herd voters and candidates alike into the two major parties. Even the major parties are struggling to elect candidates that represent their constituents and the principles the parties were founded on. Our whole goal here is to break through the two party system and give 3rd parties, 4th parties, and 5th parties a fair chance. We want to let people honestly vote, while letting the candidates honestly represent what they want to represent, without getting pigeon-holed and bullied into spouting a party line to get elected… and then doing who knows what once the get into office. Right now candidates basically have to run as either a Democrat or a Republican because our voting system only works if there are two candidates. It’s basic bad design and we can do better.

The solution:

A good voting system has the power to give the people back their voice. This issue, election reform, is the keystone for rebuilding our broken country and tackling every other issue down the line. This is our chance to make a difference!

We all want a voting system where we are free to vote our conscience, where the system is fair and impartial and where nobody’s vote is wasted. Let’s pick the best system and work together to get it implemented!

Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) aka Instant Runoff Voting:

Ranked Choice Voting has been the flagship of voting system reform for over a century now. It’s shown the world that there are better options out there and it’s caught our attention. Yet despite decades of implementation and enticing promises it hasn’t fully achieved the three goals listed above.

At the root of the matter is Ranked Choice Voting’s runoff process. The problem is that the voters rankings aren’t actually all taken into account. If your first choice isn’t eliminated until late in the game, your second and/or third choices might have already been eliminated. Those other rankings you gave are never actually looked at or counted. When the voting system ignores some of the data it can lead to unrepresentative outcomes where the candidate who wins isn’t actually the one who best represents the voters.

Many people are excited about RCV because they want to give 3rd parties a chance, but RCV elections with viable 3rd party candidates are actually the most likely scenario for a failed election; where the candidate who wins isn’t the one with the most support. We want to give everyone a fair chance and RCV can’t offer that. We need a system that works great with any number of candidates.

Enter STAR Voting:

STAR Voting picks up where RCV left off and was designed and created to fix these problems. We need an accurate, representative voting system where nobody’s vote is wasted, that rewards us for voting honestly, and that is fair, equal and unbiased. Now, for the first time it actually exists! STAR Voting, (aka SRV) is an innovative, new system designed right here in Oregon by a group from Eugene called Equal Vote. Led by election reform advocate Mark Frohnmayer, it’s been gaining traction and getting field testing in non-government elections as it gears up for it’s first round of ballot measures in 2018. STAR Voting offers a combination of benefits that we have never had available all at once. No voting system is perfect, but it balances our criteria in such a way that it does a really good job all around. STAR Voting let’s voters be honest and expressive. It lets voters put their favorite first but also show support for others without worrying that it will backfire. Honesty is the best strategy. It works just as well with any number of strong viable candidates which means that voters only have to go to the polls once.

How STAR Voting works:

STAR stands for Score-Then-Automatic-Runoff, and it uses a 5 Star ballot like we use to give ratings on Amazon or Yelp. Your ballot shows a list of candidates and next to each there are bubbles that allow you to give each a score from 0–5. Your least favorite should get a 0 and your favorite should get a 5 with the rest somewhere in the middle. It’s fine to give the same score to multiple candidates. If you only want to give a score to your favorite that’s fine, but there is incentive to have your ratings show your relative preferences between the candidates. As a voter this is all you need to know, but if you are curious here’s how it works:

“In the first round all the scores from each ballot are added up, and the top 2 are finalists. Your ballot already shows which finalist you preferred.

In the automatic runoff, whichever finalist is preferred by more voters wins.”

STAR Voting is a hybrid two-round voting system that gives us the advantages of both scoring and ranking. The first round uses score voting, but then the runoff looks at your ballots implied rankings to determine you preference. We can tell just from looking at a score ballot how that voter would have ranked all the candidates. The finalist you prefer gets your full vote in the runoff.

How is STAR Voting able to be more fair and accurate than other alternative voting systems?

STAR Voting is so representative because it uses the most expressive type of ballot and then it takes into account all the information from every single ballot all at once. More data collected and used means better results. The first round looks at “quality” of support; how much support does each candidate have. The runoff looks at “quantity” of support; if the election was just between these 2 finalists how many people would vote for each. You need quality AND quantity of support to win.

In contrast other voting systems don’t offer the same. Ranked Choice Voting has an expressive ballot and encourages most voters to be honest but then it doesn’t actually count all the rankings from all the ballots, which can lead to skewed and non-representative results, especially in elections with more than two strong candidates. Approval voting uses a much less expressive ballot so there is limited data in the first place. Approval and Score Voting don’t always encourage or allow voters to show their honest preferences. If voters aren’t honest the results can’t be accurate.
Strategic STAR Voting?

In Star Voting honesty is the best policy. The best strategy is to honestly and expressively rate each candidate so your ballot shows how much you like each candidate and also which candidates you would prefer no matter which two make it to the final round. For example: lets say that you are in a minority party in your area. None of your preferred candidates make it into the top two runoff round. There are three candidates you dislike but one you hate, one you dislike and another is mediocre. If you gave these three a 0, a 1, and a 2 then in the runoff round your ballot will show which finalist you prefer and you will still have a meaningful voice. Even though your candidates didn’t win you are less likely to end up with your least favorite because you voted expressively. In most other systems a voter in this situation’s vote would have been wasted. Since they know that their favorite won’t win anyway, there is really no reason to vote in the first place. This is one reason voter turnout is so low. With STAR Voting nobody’s vote is wasted and every vote makes a difference. It’s always worth it to show up and vote.

Critics of plain Score Voting (where there is no runoff round) worry about a strategy called tactical minimization or maximization, where voters would give everyone a max or min score, even if they have a more nuanced opinion. In plain score voting this could be a valid strategy that could help your favorite pull ahead, but in STAR Voting dishonest strategies like this are likely to backfire. “Bullet Voting” is also not a viable strategy. For those that are still concerned, studies done at Harvard on simulated elections comparing multiple voting systems under a variety of conditions show that even if voters did resort to dishonest strategies, STAR Voting would still be more accurate than RCV would be under ideal conditions. (3.) When voters in STAR Voting use their best strategy, honesty, the results are much more representative of the electorate. The runoff adds real incentive to show your preferences if you have any. The runoff makes honest, expressive voting the best strategy and this honesty translates directly to more accurate, representative outcomes.
How this translates to better democracy all around:

Unlike Plurality, Approval Voting, and IRV, STAR Voting doesn’t favor one type of voter, candidate, or party over the others. It also is one of the few voting systems that still gives good accurate results in elections with any number of viable candidates competing. We believe that because STAR Voting rewards honest and thorough voting and gives all political parties a fair shot, it will have a dramatic and unprecedented outcome on the quality of candidates and the viability of minor political parties. Even the major parties have something to gain. Candidates wouldn’t have to worry about walking a party line they disagree with in order to get elected, so in the future political parties would likely be less diluted by outsiders trying to run under a major party umbrella. Because candidates want to appeal to voters outside their core, STAR Voting also encourages positive, issue-oriented campaigning.

Candidates and politicians that we have spoken to so far in Lane County, where STAR Voting is already well on its way to becoming a ballot measure, have been excited or at least open to the idea. Because STAR Voting works so well for any number of candidates it makes the primary redundant and unnecessary. If a county opted to eliminate their primary it would save the county and the candidates tons of money and months of grueling campaigning. Win-win!

Here in Multnomah County, elections are already non-partisan. This means we can simply replace the current primary/general election with a single STAR Vote general election. This alone will go a long way towards helping candidates without big money backing be viable players.


So how do we go about comparing RCV and STAR side by side? RCV Oregon and Equal Vote came up with a list of six criteria that any voting system should aim to accomplish. Honesty, Equality, Accuracy, Simplicity, Expressiveness, and Viability.

Ranked Choice (RCV) and STAR Voting both get at least passing grades for all these criteria -unlike our current system which fails miserably- but STAR Voting really knocks it out of the park getting straight A’s in Honesty, Accuracy, Equality and Expressiveness. Let that sink in for a minute. Don’t we want a system that’s as accurate as possible? Where your best strategy is to be honest? Where the system doesn’t favor some voters or candidates over others, and where every vote is counted equally? Let’s take a closer look at the two systems side by side.

Honesty means that the system encourages and rewards honest voting: In RCV voters who prefer a viable underdog candidate might be better off putting their favorite front runner as their first choice. Honest voting in this scenario can backfire if there are 3 or more strong candidates. Gaming the system in STAR Voting would require an impossible amount of information. Dishonest voting is more likely to backfire than to help a voter so it’s not worth it.

Accuracy: RCV proponents sometimes falsely claim that Ranked Choice solves the spoiler effect but it only mitigates it. In elections with more then 2 viable candidates the candidate with the most overall support can get eliminated because the rankings from all the ballots aren’t actually counted in RCV. No system is perfect but STAR Voting maintains a very high standard of preventing the spoiler effect and selecting the winner that best represents the electorate across a wide range of scenarios.

“[STAR Voting (SRV)] has a Voter Satisfaction Efficiency of 91% all the way up to 98%… SRV is undeniably a top-shelf election method, and arguably the best out of all the ones I tested.” -Jameson Quinn, Harvard Statistics Ph.D. candidate and Vice Chair of The Center For Election Science. (3.)

Equality means that the system is fair and doesn’t favor some voters or candidates over others. Legally this means that the system passes “one voter-one vote” and gives each ballot equal weight: Because some voters will have all their rankings counted and others will only have some of their rankings counted RCV isn’t equal and isn’t even legal in many places. The algorithm gives an advantage to fringe voters and front-runners but puts viable underdogs at a disadvantage. STAR Voting offers textbook equality. That’s why our organization is named Equal Vote.

Simplicity is a threefold criteria that means that the system is simple for voters, simple for elections officials to process and that it’s simple for voters to understand the election’s results: Decades of misinformation that “if your 1st choice is eliminated your next choice will be counted” goes to show that even though ranking seems simple, people are glossing over critical details. For the voter both 5 Star and Ranking ballots are pretty simple to fill out, but RCV Ballots can’t be processed locally and must be sent to a central location which can be a huge logistical challenge and expense. Hand recounting would be next to impossible and computers are required. This means RCV is more vulnerable to fraud.

On the other hand STAR ballots can be counted in each local area and totals can be sent to a central location. This saves a ton of work! Voters can know how their area voted as well as how the election went in general. Election result can be published that show what all the candidates score totals were and also what percentage of voters preferred each finalist. The runoff results can be presented just like the results for a general election in our current system.

For RCV once the election is over there is another complication. The news can post the who the winner was, but can’t really give more insight than that. Percentages would be meaningless and understanding how the votes translated into the results can be so complicated that even many elections officials don’t fully get it. RCV can make it look like the people came to a good collective decision when the elected candidate was actually not the most popular at all. If and when voters do find out that an election has failed to pick the candidate who should have won they are furious, and in many cases this is all the incentive needed to repeal the system, just like what happened in Vermont.

Viability: By now many of you are familiar with the 2009 Burlington, Vermont example, where a spoiled election played a large part in causing voters to repeal their new IRV voting system and go back to Plurality. (

The non-representative election result in Burlington was made even worse by the fact that the “experts” from FairVote who were advocating RCV in the first place had done so with a LOT of false and overstated claims. Voters in Burlington had been told that #1, RCV elects the majority winner, #2, that in RCV you can safely vote for your favorite, and #3, that if your first choice is eliminated your next choice will be counted. All three of these claims are false for many voters. This dishonesty was probably unintentional for many volunteers who were misinformed and who worked on the effort, after all, the system is complex and most of us here today had also read and believed these false claims up until recently. Unfortunately, good intentions don’t change the outcome. Voters took it personally and took it to the polls. We can’t afford that kind of setback. The good news is that we don’t have to learn this lesson the hard way. We can skip straight to STAR Voting and become leaders in Democracy.

Let’s pass a system that can withstand scrutiny and set the bar high for election reforms around the country and the world! Every great idea started somewhere, why not Oregon!

So where do we go from here? How do we go about getting STAR Voting passed:

  1. We have a scalable ballot initiative proposal that works on a county level, statewide, and on a larger scale. In Lane County, OR, STAR Voting will be on the Nov. 6th ballot. Pass STAR Voting for Multnomah County and other local elections all over the place, then go statewide in Oregon. Become a model for the country and convince Canada and other countries struggling with democracy and elections to come along too!
  2. Get Legislators to put ballot measures directly on the ballot where possible and skip the petition step!
  3. Fundraise! Run a high quality, well rounded campaign.
  4. Educate: Do a comprehensive outreach effort to get organizations to use STAR Voting in businesses and to demo it in schools and offices. Billboards, buses, ads, etc. We have an online election calculator that anyone can use to run a STAR Voting election. Help us build data around this critical reform!
  5. Vote it in!

What can you do to help?

Educational Resources to Compare RCV and STAR:


(1.) Democratic, Republican Identification Near Historical Lows.

(2.) “[RCV] can cause spoilers in up to 1 in 5 elections or worse when there are more candidates according to expert analysis.” Frequency of monotonicity failure under Instant Runoff Voting: Estimates based on a spatial model of elections. By Joseph T Ornstein, University of Michigan, Dept. of Political Science and Robert Z. Norman, Dartmouth College, Dept. of Mathematics

(3.) The Center For Election Science,

(4.) The Center For Range Voting,



Sara Wolk

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