Are We Witnessing the Cutting Edge of Voting Reform?

Created: 01 February, 2018
Updated: 17 October, 2022
10 min read

The Equal Vote Coalition is proposing an innovative new voting system that its leaders say will not only revolutionize the way we conduct elections, but will provide the fixes we need for a clearly broken system.

The voting system is called STAR (Score Then Automatic Runoff) Voting, which was originally proposed in 2014.

"STAR Voting allows voters to rate all the candidates similar to how we rate books on Amazon, restaurants on Yelp and songs on iTunes," Equal Vote explains on its website. "Whether we've seen the Olympics or ever been graded on a homework assignment, scoring is a thoroughly-understood, ubiquitous method of expressing a fine degree of opinion on a subject."

"The winner is determined in two steps. First, all the scores for all the candidates are added up. The second step is an automatic runoff between the two highest scoring candidates. In the runoff, your full vote is automatically assigned to whichever of the top two you rated higher. If you gave the same score to both finalists, you vote no-preference in the automatic runoff."

 To better understand how STAR Voting works, check out this video that explains both the problems and the solution in less than 5 minutes:


Equal Vote has launched campaigns to get STAR Voting on the ballot in two of Oregon's largest counties, Multnomah and Lane -- or the Portland and Eugene areas. I interviewed Multnomah County Chief Petitioner and Campaign Manager Sara Wolk on STAR Voting and the efforts of the Equal Votes Coalition in Oregon.

Shawn Griffiths: Thank You, Sara, for taking time to answer my questions. First, let's discuss the problems with the current system, the state of democracy today, and why STAR Voting is needed.

Sara Wolk: Necessity is the mother of invention and our current system is fatally flawed all the way to its core. It seems simple at a glance - you vote for one candidate and whoever has the most votes wins - but the implications really are disastrous.

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Election reforms like the National Popular Vote, eliminating gerrymandering, and preventing voter fraud, get a lot of attention - and for good reason - but what people need to understand is that even if all these problems were all fixed, we would still have totally broken elections that elect candidates who don’t have the support of the people.

Here’s the key point: Our current system is only fair and accurate if there are two candidates in the race! The rest of the time voters have to worry about splitting the vote and throwing the election. It’s called the “spoiler effect.”

Unless voters from each camp can come to a consensus around which frontrunner they prefer they end up divided and conquered. The world is not black and white and it’s not red and blue. Our current system leads to “lesser-evil voting,” because voting your conscience can backfire and help elect your worst-case-scenario.

Another problem is that the partisan primary process is fundamentally divisive and excludes the roughly 43% of voters that don’t identify with either major party. If you don’t fall in line your vote is essentially wasted.

Independent candidates can’t run in the primaries that really make a difference and in the general elections people know that voting for them risks splitting the vote.

For those that are in a major party your vote is also essentially wasted if you aren’t in a swing state or district. If you’re party always wins or loses you can safely bet that your vote won’t make a difference. This is a phenomena that’s compounded with gerrymandering, but even if people aren’t trying to game the system it still is unfair to voters in these areas.

STAR Voting addresses vote splitting, aka “the spoiler effect,” and actually rewards honest voting no matter how many candidates are in the race. Voting your conscience and showing your full opinion is the best strategy.

STAR Voting also never wastes you vote. All the scores from each ballot are counted at the same time, so there’s no playing favorites or ignoring some of the data.

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Even if none of your favorite candidates can win in your area, your ballot automatically goes to the finalist you preferred. This means that at the very least your ballot will always help prevent your worst case scenario.

Shawn Griffiths: Equal Vote is currently trying to get STAR Voting on the ballot in two of Oregon's largest counties. What does the ballot initiative process look like in these counties and where is your organization currently at in this process?

Sara Wolk: Equal Vote has been working for years to develop, refine, and implement a truly equal voting system that levels the playing field, let’s people vote their conscience, and doesn’t waste anyone’s vote. We’ve had local activists and national veterans in voting science working to find a solution that can stand up to scrutiny and deliver an unparalleled level of democracy.

It’s been a long road, but we believe with STAR Voting, we’ve finally got the proposal that the world has been waiting for.

We’ve just begun collecting signatures for twin ballot measures to implement STAR Voting in both Multnomah and Lane Counties, which are the Portland and Eugene areas, respectively. We’re already though the tricky legal part of the process, which included drafting county charter amendments and a lot of paperwork.

The good news is that our STAR Voting amendment is pretty simple, so it’s barely over half a page of text. The county then wrote a ballot title and explanatory statement, which we approved.

The initiative was checked over and certified by the county elections constitutional and legislative review board, which was smooth sailing. We also made it through the public comment period without incident and didn’t face any legal challenges or opposition in either county.

For us, the hard part has been trying to get all of this done with perfect timing to maximize fair weather canvassing. In Portland we need to collect over 32,000 verified signatures to get on the November 2018 ballot. Lane will need over 11,000 and we have to add on at least 20% as a buffer.

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Unfortunately, here in Oregon the deadlines are before the best summer months when people are out and about. With our legendary winter and spring rains that’s going to mean a lot of standing out in foul weather, but we’re confident that it’ll all be worth it in the end.

Shawn Griffiths: What has the voter education approach looked like for Equal Vote to ensure that voters understand exactly what STAR Voting is and how it is better than any other form of voting method currently used in other parts of the US? Why specifically should voters embrace this reform?

Sara Wolk: Getting the word out is our #1 priority! We want everyone to have heard of STAR Voting by this November. Our team and our supporters from other organizations have been hard at work talking about this, posting about it, writing articles, making videos, and giving speeches all over Portland and Eugene to spread the word.

The plan is to go all out with every approach from word of mouth to giant billboards! The good news is that awareness of the problem is at an all time high.

Our current voting system is fundamentally broken! People from all sorts of political camps and causes are all in agreement that election reform is a keystone issue that will have an exponential impact on everything else that is important to us.

In a time of unprecedented polarization it’s an amazing feeling to be working together constructively with activists, politicians, and community leaders from across the political spectrum.

STAR Voting is a new, innovative proposal, homegrown right here in Oregon, but it draws on some familiar systems that have been used widely all over the world in both the public and private sectors.

Voters use a simple 5 star ballot which is basically the same as we are all familiar with for reviews, ratings, and polling. Since this is already a pretty universal method for showing your opinion, using 5 star ratings on a ballot is a natural evolution.

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The magic of the star ballot is that it allows voters to show how much they like each candidate, as well as who they would prefer no matter who the front runners actually are.

Voters only need to vote once, but the ballots are counted in a simple two-step process. STAR stands for Score Then Automatic Runoff:

Voters give each candidate a score from 0-5. If you don’t have a preference you can give candidates the same scores. Those that you leave blank get a zero. Everyone’s scores are totaled and the two highest scoring candidates are finalists.

Your ballot already shows which finalist you scored higher. The winner is the finalist preferred by more voters.

STAR Voting eliminates the need for a primary because it’s highly accurate with any number of candidates. Our Multnomah County races are already nonpartisan, so switching to a single STAR Vote in the general election is a simple change with the potential to save both taxpayers and candidates a lot of money in the long run.

Probably our most exciting voter education project is the online election calculator we just unveiled at www.star.vote. This is a simple tool that any group or organization can use to host their own secure STAR Voting election!

A lot of our outreach involves talking to groups that do host their own elections and many of them are excited to switch to STAR Voting. Those that have made the switch have had overwhelmingly positive feedback about both the high quality results and the user friendly experience.

Shawn Griffiths: How have voters generally responded to the idea?

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Sara Wolk: The vast majority of people we’ve talked to, from everyday voters to election science nerds have responded very positively. So many people feel that their votes are wasted, that they are excluded, that they can’t safely vote their conscience. Whether voters are familiar with the concept of alternative voting systems or not, people are excited that there is something we can do locally that could serve as a model for the rest of the country.

Even when we do run into skeptics we’ve actually had a great success rate for winning people over once they dig in and do their homework. The more people go into depth comparing STAR Voting and the alternatives the more they get on board.

When people have a history supporting another reform it can be challenging to convince them to look at this with an open mind, but once people do they’ll find it worth their time. The vast majority of our core team were longtime advocates of other voting systems before they found out about STAR Voting.

This really has become a coalition movement and that’s an inspiring draw for veteran activists and newcomers alike.

Shawn Griffiths: Is the effort to get STAR Voting on the ballot in these two counties a stepping stone to taking the reform statewide?

Sara Wolk: Yes! STAR Voting is a viable model that could make a huge difference anywhere it’s adopted and on any scale. We’re already starting voter education across the state and even nationally. STAR Voting is exactly what we need for presidential elections and it’s easily adapted for any type of vote, with or without a primary.

Even Canada has been talking seriously about adopting a new voting system on a national level. This could be the solution they are looking for!

At the Equal Vote Coalition, our plan is to focus locally where we can be the most effective, but to also provide the tools and support necessary for people anywhere to start their own Equal Vote chapters and STAR Voting campaigns wherever they are needed.

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Photo Credit: vchal / shutterstock.com 

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