Editor’s Note: As with many organizations during the Covid pandemic, County Democrat Reader did not escape a period of forced flux involving a stall in operations. We are happy to announce a “soft” reopening as of today, with the publication of this piece by esteemed Executive Director of the Equal Vote Coalition, Sara Wolk — who also happens to be a PCP with our own Multnomah County Democrats. We are proud and honored to share some answers from Sara about the recent MCD election methods used.
FAQ for the Bloc STAR MultDems Reorg Election
Q: The last election for MultDems used a different voting method. What was the new system?
A: In September of 2019 Multnomah County Democrats voted by a supermajority to adopt STAR Voting for all internal elections with three or more candidates. Officers are now elected using single-winner STAR Voting, and for multi-winner races such as for State Central Committee and congressional district delegates Bloc STAR is used.
Single-winner STAR Voting is counted in two rounds:
1. In the first round the scores given to all candidates are totaled, and the two highest scoring candidates are the finalists.
2. In the second round each vote goes to the finalist who was preferred by each voter.
Bloc STAR works the same way as single-winner STAR Voting, but the process is repeated until all seats have been filled.
January 23rd, 2021 was the first time STAR Voting was used for a Multnomah County Democrats Reorganization election.
Q: Is there a voter guide for how to vote in the new system?
A: Yes. This link to the guide on how to vote with STAR Voting from the Equal Vote Coalition can be found here, in both English and Spanish. These resources are available in additional languages on request by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Q: Results were gender balanced. What does that mean and how does it work?
A: All multi-winner elections for Multnomah County Democrats are gender balanced, with neither male or female identifying candidates able to win more than one half + one of the seats for each delegation. All candidates are listed on the same ballot, and non-binary candidates are able to win a seat anytime they have the most support, regardless of gender.
Gender balancing is an additional step that’s performed after the STAR Voting election is tallied. The election is tallied according to STAR Voting, and a candidate ranking is generated, showing who came in 1st place, second place etc. Gender balanced winners are then selected by going down this list alternating between male and female candidaets and electing non-binary candidates any time they are at the top of the list.
Q: Why did the meeting take so long?
A: This was the first electronic Reorg meeting hosted by the Multnomah County Democrats, which is the largest county party in the state. The meeting was 100% staffed by volunteers, and included over 320 participants. There were some significant technological hurdles with credentialing, volunteer coordination, and tech support for participants, as well as the logistics of emailing multiple resources to so many people, both before and during the meeting.
Party bylaws are clear that participants should not be automatically muted, but with so many people on the call, waiting to be called on was challenging in some cases, due to the volume of participants.
A few issues came up with technology and a few mistakes were made, including a mix up with the sample ballot and real ballot links, and incorrect voting links were distributed a couple of times. Correcting the mistake ended up requiring the body to debate and then approve proposed solutions and extended timelines.
Mistakes happen and democracy can be messy, but the meeting length didn’t have anything to do with STAR Voting. Results were available following voting within the expected time frame.
Q: What takeaways were there from the STAR election outcomes?
A: In the MultCo election, diversity won big and polarizing candidates from both factions appear to have done worse than in the past, though that’s inherently subjective.
A spreadsheet on the election results was put together by Communications Officer Jas Davis to help assess diversity in our elections. The header to the sheet reads: “In this election candidates from historically marginalized communities did notably well.” From a field of 100+ candidates, 22 candidates known to be from various marginalized communities ran and 20 of them won. “Despite comprising less than a quarter of all candidates, these candidates won nearly two-thirds of the seats.”
This project highlighted a few things we might want to consider for the future. Diversity is an important goal and value for Multnomah Dems, but we currently don’t have a survey that candidates can fill out to let us know what demographics they identify with unless it’s a point they raise in their speeches. With this in mind, it’s likely that there are some individuals who may have been missed in the analysis. We also don’t have similar data from past elections, so it’s hard to draw firm conclusions about how this represents a change from years past. If this is data we want to collect in the future we may want to consider including it in a candidate survey.
Q: Slates encouraged voters to give their candidates five stars. Did that give them an advantage?
A: The old system, Bloc Plurality is notorious for being super gameable. Factions who all voted as a block for a slate, and voted for exactly the number of candidates as the seats available, got a huge advantage in the old system. That’s why slates have historically been such a big deal. Individuals who didn’t vote with the block were at a huge disadvantage with the old system.
Bloc STAR mitigates those issues, making slates less powerful, and making it less important to vote for the exact number of candidates running. Of course getting good endorsement will always be helpful, and of course voters will ideally score at least as many candidates as there are seats, but if there are ten seats you do not need to give five stars to all ten candidates, unless there are ten you truly love. You should show your honest preference order.
Q: Is Bloc STAR vulnerable to strategic voting?
A: With any new system people experiment and try to game it if they can. In STAR Voting they can try, but it’s unlikely to give them an edge. With Bloc STAR the key to good “strategy” is the same as in single-winner STAR. Give your favorites five, your worst candidates zero, and show your preference order and level of support for the rest. In short, honesty is the best policy.
Even if voters are strategic in Bloc STAR the results will be much more representative, and those who vote strategically will have less of an edge. No voting method can eliminate all possibilities for strategic voting, but in STAR Voting strategic voting is not incentivized or effective.
Attempting strategic voting in STAR can backfire, and most voters will get the best results if they are honest. For example, a voter who only loves nine candidates but who strategically decides to give five stars to 21 candidates because there are 21 winners for SCC is giving up their power to have a say in which of those 21 will win, or in what order. If you honestly just want any of the 21 to win that is an honest good vote. If you want your favorites to win the top spots then you should only give top scores to your favorites. A good vote in this situation would be to give a top score to your nine favorites, and then give other candidates you hope will win four stars, or the number of stars you think they deserve, showing your honest preference order.
Q: Do people who give less high scores have less power?
A: No. Your scores will help your favorites pull ahead of the rest. If you have lots of favorites give lots of high scores, if you only have one favorite then only give your top score to them. It’s up to you to decide what your honest vote looks like. Showing your preference order and level of support for the candidates helps ensure that your scores help the best candidates advance to the runoff and hopefully win each seat.
A key point here is that in the runoff, each ballot is one vote. Whether voters give lots of fives or just a few, your final vote will go to the finalist you prefer. The runoff is binary, and it actually will correct for any strategic voting or distortion from normal variations in voting behavior, to the extent possible.
Q: Do we propose voting like this, with STAR Voting and multi-winner Bloc STAR for governmental elections?
A: STAR Voting would absolutely be a good fit for governmental elections, and STAR voting is adaptable, so whether a race is single-winner like we have for President, Governors, Mayors, and City Council, or multi-winner like we have for school board races and for some smaller city councils like Troutdale, STAR will ensure fair representation.
Single-winner STAR voting, multi-winner Bloc STAR, and Proportional STAR Voting are each best suited to different types of elections, and each achieve different goals. There’s more on which version of STAR Voting is a good fit for which elections here.
There are a number of considerations to take in mind when picking an electoral system, and it’s worth noting that multi-winner bloc voting in general is not recommended for elections where local representation is important to preserve, especially if geographical representation isn’t already ensured with small multi-member or single-winner districts.
Q: Would Bloc STAR be good for a primary?
A: Yes. Bloc STAR would be the best choice for a top five primary because it would eliminate vote-splitting and do a great job at accurately advancing the top five most viable candidates.
With STAR voting primaries could be eliminated entirely, or they could be skipped if there isn’t actually a large field of candidates. In our current system for many races only the top two candidates advance in order to avoid vote-splitting and find a majority preferred winner, but STAR Voting accomplishes that anyways.
With STAR Voting if a primary was needed, we wouldn’t have to narrow the field so drastically before most voters have even had time to learn about the candidates. If it was used for a primary Bloc STAR could be used to just advance the top five candidates, then the final decision would be made in the general when election turnout is higher.
Q: What campaigns are underway to adopt STAR Voting in Oregon.
There are currently ballot initiatives underway to adopt STAR Voting at the local level in Troutdale, Eugene, and in Lane County. There is also a bill in the legislature that would make STAR Voting the default voting method for Oregon, HB3250.
Go to starvoting.us to get involved!
By Sara Wolk
Executive Director of the Equal Vote Coalition
Multnomah County PCP, SCC Delegate, Rules Committee Delegate.