Some folks have suggested STAR Voting is too complicated, so I wanted to describe my findings over the course of the 12 years I’ve spent researching voting systems since I began in 2006.
How it Works
Here’s a STAR Voting ballot. You just rate the candidates on a 0–5 scale, and it elects the majority favorite between the two highest rated candidates.
So let’s say Allen and Frank ended up having the most points from all voters. This voter gave Frank a higher score than Allen, so this vote would go to Frank when picking the majority winner (the “automatic runoff”).
One Election Instead of Two!
Currently Lane County elected offices are filled using a “top two jungle primary” system involving a primary election in the spring and a general election in November. The election is non-partisan and no party labels show up on the ballot, so Democrats might be running against Democrats and Republicans running against Republicans.
If a candidate gets a majority in the primary (50%+1 of the votes), that is the only candidate who appears on the November ballot — even though many more voters show up for the November election. If no candidate gets a majority in the primary, the two candidates with the most votes go to the November ballot — even though each of them got only a minority of the total vote in the primary.
In the November election voters are given the choice of only the one or two candidates who made it through the spring primary.
With STAR Voting there is no need for a primary election, so voters would vote only once, in November. This makes for a shorter campaign season focused on the summer and fall when people are paying more attention. It also makes it easier for candidates who don’t have big donors to run a viable campaign.
The ballot would still be nonpartisan, but instead of being limited to picking just one candidate, you can give a score to any or all candidates — even giving the same score to two or more candidates you prefer equally. (Giving no score is counted as a zero.)
See for Yourself
You can try STAR Voting right now by casting a vote in this online election for best dessert. I’m a chocoholic, so this peek at part of my ballot shouldn’t surprise you.
SPOILER ALERT: Here are the results from the dessert election.
On the left, we see all the “candidates” ordered by how many total points they got. Chocolate Chip Cookies and Vanilla Ice Cream are the finalists. On the right, we see that voters preferred Chocolate Chip Cookies to Ice Cream by a 20–15 margin, with 10 voters expressing no preference between those two options.
After a few days of intense online research in the summer of 2006, I came to support a score ballot. But I wanted to gauge how well the average voter would handle it. So while visiting a friend in Beaumont, Texas, I decided to visit the local polling site during the November election and conduct a small exit poll. I actually used a large 0–10 scale instead of the simple 0–5 scale used in STAR Voting. I also included an explicit “no opinion” option, which was treated like a zero, but allowed us to have some extra insights into voter psychology, since we were acting as researchers after all. Here’s the exact ballot I used.
All participants intuitively understood the rating scale, and showed no evidence of confusion. Multiple subsequent experiments showed the same thing. For instance, the Harvey Milk Democratic Club adopted a score ballot for their endorsement elections. A score ballot was also used for the hotly contested 2015 straw poll at the Republican Liberty Caucus. Time and time again, participants had no problems.
One of the best measures of the simplicity or complexity of a voting system is the rate of spoiled ballots. Literally, how often do voters mess up when attempting to cast their vote. Analysis by Warren Smith, a Princeton math PhD who’s work was prominently featured in William Poundstone’s 2008 book Gaming the Vote, shows that score ballots actually reduce the rate of spoilage.
Gaming the Vote
The 2008 book Gaming the Vote by William Poundstone covers another measure of simplicity where a ratings ballot excels: the speed at which voters cast their votes. He discusses the web site HotOrNot.com.
The main concern you hear is that it is difficult. Range voting is “unnecessarily complicated,” wrote a poster on the Tacoma, Washington, News-Tribune electronic bulletin board, calling it “something only math geniuses at MIT would dream up for a populace in which many can’t balance a checkbook.” This is Steven Brams main reservation regarding range voting. Many voters don’t know who the vice president is, Brams told Smith. Maybe there is something ridiculous about asking such people to supply numerical scores. It is worth noting that what sold Hot or Not creators James Hong and Jim Young on [casting score ballots] was its speed. They wanted site visitors to rate photos as fast as possible. That way the site would collect many votes for each picture, giving the scores credibility — “a wisdom of crowds thing,” Hong said. “We found that anything that made it harder to vote was a bad thing.” They considered having visitors pick their favorite of two on-screen photos. A photo would win points for each time it was preferred over another, random photo. This would loosely simulate a Borda count. (In a true Borda count, a candidate wins a point every time a voter ranks her above a rival. No Hot or Not voter could rank all the millions of pictures on the site, of course. The aggregate effect of random visitors ranking random pairs would be similar.) However, when shown two photos that happen to be of roughly equal attractiveness, “people will look at the pictures and not know,” Hong said. “They have a harder time deciding.” Hong and Young also considered a simple “hot” or “not” vote on a single picture. This would be an approval vote. There it was “average” Joes and Janes who slowed things down. People would have to ponder whether to click “hot” or “not.” [Score ballots were] faster. It seemed to require less thought.
There have been complaints that Hot or Not is silly, superficial, and sexist. No one thinks it’s hard to understand. The ratings on YouTube, Amazon, and all the other sites do not seem to bother people, either. Olympic judging provides another demonstration that scoring is easier than ranking. The numbers that judges hold up on cards (in cartoons, anyway) are range votes. The judges give preliminary scores because scoring can be done on the fly. With rankings, you have to keep adjusting your numbers so that there’s only one athlete or candidate of each rank. This can be devilishly complicated when there are many competitors. I suspect that what’s really behind the perception that scoring is “hard” is number phobia. A check mark is simple. Numbers are difficult. The bigger the numbers involved, the more difficult it seems.