STAR voting is a good idea. @FairVote is making a mistake by undermining it.

In just over 2 weeks, Lane County, Oregon will vote on whether to use a new voting method for local elections: STAR voting.

It’s so simple, I can explain it with one picture:

A sample STAR voting ballot. The voter can rate 6 candidates (Allen, Bianca, Chris, Desi, Edith, and Frank) on a 0–5 scale. Instructions read: “The two highest scoring candidates are finalists. The finalist scored higher by more voters wins.”

STAR allows voters to approach voting by just honestly rating the candidates. The two most popular and least divisive candidates will naturally rise to the top and become finalists. Then, in deciding between those two finalists, everyone’s vote counts equally, whether you rated them [3 and 4] or [5 and 0]. That way, you don’t have to worry about strategies such as exaggerating the score difference between the two frontrunners.

STAR is promoted by two local voting reform organizations: the Equal Vote coalition and STAR voting for Lane County. Meanwhile, the two largest national voting reform organizations—FairVote and the Center for Election Science—have not explicitly endorsed it. I think that’s a mistake. And the way FairVote specifically has handled this is a big mistake.

The CES, where I am a board member, is focusing our energy for this election on a local ballot measure in Fargo, North Dakota, to switch to approval voting, a different improved voting method. While I believe we should have explicitly endorsed STAR, in practice we’ve made positive statements about the method, so the extra difference an endorsement would make is minor.

But FairVote has released a position paper on STAR voting which any reasonable person would read as deeply skeptical. Although the paper does begin by saying that FairVote “does not oppose efforts for STAR voting”, most of it is devoted to arguments against STAR. These arguments are factually wrong and strategically stupid.

I’ll explain why in a moment, but first, let me give you some of my credentials on this matter. Skip this italic section if you don’t care about credentials. Beyond being a board member of the Center for Election Science, I’ve been involved in voting reform for over 20 years. I invented the E Pluribus Hugo voting method and helped get it implemented for the Hugo Award nominations, the world’s oldest science fiction literary awards. I wrote a peer-reviewed academic paper on that system with Bruce Schneier. I organized the British Columbia Symposium on Proportional Representation. I’ve run monte carlo simulations of voter satisfaction under various single-winner voting methods using a sophisticated probability model of voter preference clustering, as part of my research pursuing a Harvard PhD in Statistics. I’ve also done an empirical experiment on voter behavior with hundreds of subjects on Amazon Mechanical Turk. And in 2011 I spearheaded the Declaration of Election-Method Reform Advocates, an early attempt to get prominent election reformers to unite on a common agenda.

Factually, the FairVote position paper I linked above is simply wrong about voting strategy. Any possible voting system can reward strategic voting in some cases; that’s been proven mathematically. But different voting methods can be subject to strategy more or less often. The strategy that FairVote’s position paper suggests would be obviously beneficial under STAR voting would in fact by overwhelmingly more likely to harm voter groups who attempted it than to help them; and FairVote’s argument for why it would be a problem relies on the idea that people would use it even when it was clearly a bad idea.

Here’s the key passage from their paper:

As an example, consider the 2017 French presidential election. The French president is elected in a two-round runoff election: voters cast one vote for any candidate, and if no candidate earns a majority, the top two participate in a runoff election. Going into the first round, there were four very strong candidates: Emmanuel Macron (centrist), Marine Le Pen (right wing), François Fillon (conservative), and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (left wing). Polls in advance of the first round showed two things very clearly: all four had very similar levels of base support (about 20 percent each, with the other 20 percent split among seven other candidates). And if Macron finished in the top two, he would likely beat any competitor head-to-head.
Suppose this election took place using STAR voting, instead of a two-round runoff election. Supporters of any candidate other than Macron would have two strong incentives: help their favorite reach the runoff round, and also keep Macron out of the runoff round. For instance, Mélenchon’s enthusiastic base would maximize his chances of winning by giving him a score of 5, giving Macron a score of 0, and then giving Le Pen and Fillon scores of 4, even if they would prefer Macron to either Le Pen or Fillon. That way, Mélenchon would be more likely to face either Le Pen or Fillon in the runoff round, in which their ballot would count as one vote for Mélenchon. If enough Le Pen and Fillon supporters do something similar, then they could collectively keep Macron out of the runoff round.

This is, to use a technical term, bonkers. The kind of strategy they suggest could indeed possibly function in highly specific circumstances. But it is unlikely that any pre-election poll would be accurate enough to predict whether it would work. And in the French example they used, we can say with confidence that it wouldn’t. Le Pen voters, in using this strategy, would either have no effect or predictably switch the winner from Macron to someone they liked less. Between Fillon and Mélenchon voters, at least one group would have to get similarly burned by attempting this strategy. And without the participation all three voter groups in this coordinated strategy, it simply wouldn’t have worked; Macron would have won anyway.

The example FairVote uses to show that this kind of voting would be common in reality is a dirty-tricks campaign in Washington State. Honestly, I doubt that FairVote is too stupid to tell the difference between this example of a small group attempting to divide opponent’s voters by sending out a dishonest mailer, and the idea that a large group of voters would dishonestly give a high score to a candidate they hated on actual ballots. But if FairVote isn’t being stupid here, they’re being deliberately misleading, which is hardly better.

Strategically, it’s stupid for a voting reform organization like FairVote to be this negative about an initiative for bona-fide voting reform. The fact is that most US elections are run using almost the worst possible voting method: choose-one voting, aka “plurality” or “first past the post”. Our message as reformers should be that the status quo is so bad that it’s extremely easy to improve matters. I think the evidence shows STAR voting would be an excellent reform; one of the best proposals there is, and far better than what FairVote is working for. But even if you think it would be second-rate, you should focus your fire on the real enemy, choose-one voting, rather than spending energy infighting with other reformers.

Why is FairVote doing this? They agree that choose-one voting is bad, but support different voting methods to fix it: single-winner and multi-winner ranked choice voting (RCV). There’s been silly infighting between voting reformers supporting different reforms in the past, and FairVote has often been on the receiving end. Apparently, they think it’s a good idea to respond by lashing out at STAR voting, even though it’s not generally STAR voting supporters who attacked them first.

Personally, I don’t think RCV is the best reform. If I wanted to, I could give you detailed explanations of how it could break down in some cases. But if it’s a choice between RCV and choose-one, I’ll support RCV, and keep my reservations quiet. Because I’m not a strategic idiot.

So if I hate infighting so much, why am I writing this article? Because Lane County is already starting to vote on whether they want to use STAR voting, and FairVote’s fear, uncertainty, and doubt is already hurting the chances of reform. I’ve been part of behind-the-scenes negotiations to try to resolve this issue, and while some good-faith steps were taken on both sides, FairVote was unwilling to take down this harmful and inaccurate position paper.

I’ll be happy to take this article here down after the election and resume peace talks. But in the mean time: up with STAR voting! And down with FairVote!