Ranked Choice, Approval, or STAR Voting?

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Advocates of RCV, approval, and STAR voting have no reason to be at odds, and every reason to support each other’s efforts. Union ForwardRead More

The culture wars of 21st century America have transformed our national identity in ways we cannot yet fully understand. The average American sees plainly the two-party system’s descent into tribalism, yet often feels powerless to help in any meaningful way.

In truth, the culture wars are an extravagant distraction from the fundamental challenges to our Union. Democratic and Republican Party leaders in Washington, D.C. use increasingly rancorous rhetoric to undermine their opponents’ credibility, and media outlets gladly report on the Hollywood-esque controversies which erupt from the partisan divide.

In the media’s quest for clicks, however, they have broadly failed to catch perhaps the most important element of the story.

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Fireworks at the U.S. Capital Building, July 2021 [Credit—Anthony Quintano, License—CC-BY-2.0]

The Democratic and Republican parties, who often lead the charge in the culture wars themselves, are minority parties. In 2022, an average of just 28 percent of Americans identified as Democrats. The Republican Party earned the same share: 28 percent. Meanwhile, an average of 42 percent identified as independent.

Articles and reports which question whether the country is hopelessly divided miss the fact that the two parties each represent hardly more than a quarter of the electorate. America itself is not so divided, we are just governed by parties which do not accurately reflect the public.

In reality, voters as a whole tend to disagree with the more extreme positions taken by the Democratic and Republican parties alike. Americans’ dismal approval of our institutions of government reflects the reality of a growing imbalance: a smaller and smaller number of Americans are identifying as either a Democrat or a Republican, yet these two parties exclusively trade majority power in D.C. back and forth.

The Forward Party, founded in 2021, contends that our traditional choose-one voting system is inherently designed to produce poor results for voters. Party leaders view a switch to alternative voting systems which eliminate the third party “spoiler effect” as a key first step to restoring a truly representative government.

State Forward Party chapters are encouraged to decide for themselves what policies that fall within the party’s priorities will suit their communities. The national party advocates that states adopt one of three alternative voting methods: ranked-choice voting (RCV), approval voting or score-then-automatic-runoff (STAR) voting.

A debate has naturally emerged within the party around which of the three methods provides the best results for voters. This debate includes practical considerations such as the fact that RCV has substantially more recognition and momentum around the country. Approval and STAR voting advocates, however, counter by arguing that their systems are each more effective than RCV at giving independents and third parties a fair shake.

Each method has its own benefits and drawbacks, though it is ultimately in the hands of state Forward Party chapters to determine which one they will advocate for. Connecticut Forwardists support RCV for their state, Utah Forwardists support approval voting for theirs, and Oregon Forwardists support STAR voting for theirs. These policy differences do not reflect division. They are highly encouraged by party leaders.

Advocates of RCV, approval, and STAR voting within the Forward Party coalition broadly agree that all three of these methods are far superior to traditional choose-one voting. A Forward Party volunteer from Texas named Justin, for example, felt compelled to join in part because of his support for RCV. He became aware of STAR voting through discussions with other Forwardists, and over time his preference shifted towards STAR over RCV.

But when an RCV referendum made its way onto the Nevada ballot in 2022, Justin still picked up the phone to call voters in the Silver State and champion the advantages of RCV.

Forwardists are eager to break the mindset of “us versus them” that Democratic and Republican leaders trumpet in speeches and interviews for electoral gain. The new party’s supporters are united by a belief that policy differences—with the exception of hateful or violent ideologies—are meaningless compared to Americans’ shared desire for a country that is committed to preserving liberty, democracy, and the rule of law for the next generation.

[Click on the polls at the end of each section of this article to try out RCV, approval voting, and STAR voting for yourself!]

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I. Ranked-choice Voting (RCV)

A voting sign outside a polling place in Woodbury, Minnesota in November 2020 [Credit—Tony Webster, License—CC BY 2.0]

RCV leads the three proposed voting methods in national prominence and support, and momentum for the change has spread quickly in recent years.

Since 2016, RCV was adopted by Alaska and Maine statewide, and approved by voters in Nevada just last November. Under Nevada state law, RCV must be approved by voters a second time in 2024 before it is implemented. Meanwhile, more than a dozen states are currently considering RCV legislation.

RCV asks voters to rank candidates in order of preference rather than choosing just one. If any candidate earns 50 percent of first-place votes, they are declared the winner. In contrast to traditional choose-one voting, RCV ensures that the winning candidate always reaches this majority threshold. If no candidate wins 50 percent of first-place votes, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Every ballot with the losing candidate ranked first then has their second-place votes counted, and this process of elimination continues until a candidate reaches 50 percent.

Essentially, RCV aims to combat partisanship by allowing for more choices on the ballot. Since second-place votes are often the key to victory, candidates are incentivized to build bridges and are discouraged from creating enemies. Alienating an opponents’ supporters would quickly become a losing strategy after a switch to RCV. Where traditional choose-one voting undermines independent, cooperative, and solutions-oriented candidates, RCV elevates them.

Proponents of RCV argue that those who are currently hesitant to vote for an independent or third party candidate may be more inclined to vote their conscience if they know they can rank their preferred Democrat or Republican second. Third party candidates are not likely to start winning elections overnight, but each of these voting reforms offers third parties a platform from which there is a credible path to winning representation. If, for example, RCV led to a Forward Party candidate winning 10 percent of the vote, major party candidates would then be compelled to appeal to Forward voters for second-place votes. In theory, RCV would offer new parties a degree of leverage which could be translated into the advent of a multi-party system.

The chief criticism of RCV in media outlets is that it is too confusing for voters and will deter them from showing up to the polls. This was not the experience of Alaska voters in 2022, however, 85 percent of whom found RCV “simple.” If your local ice cream shop has been out of your favorite flavor before and you had to choose your second favorite, then you understand how ranking your choices works. Americans are not confused by the concept. Although voter education efforts smooth the implementation of RCV, they are not essential. Furthermore, if a voter does not want to list more than one choice, they are not required to vote for a second choice.

Some see RCV as a chance to reduce wasteful spending in elections. Chase Oliver, the Libertarian Party’s nominee in the 2022 Georgia Senate race, promoted RCV in Georgia as a way to end the Peach State’s costly runoff elections. Instead of unleashing tens of millions of dollars worth of new campaign spending for the runoff, RCV would have produced an instant runoff and the second-place votes of Oliver’s supporters would have decided the outcome. In the days following last December’s runoff between Senator Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger suggested that he would recommend RCV among other things to the state legislature in 2023.

Further research will shine more light on the impacts of RCV, but early findings suggest that it makes elections more civil, leads to candidates with broader approval, and boosts youth voter turnout. Andrew Yang, co-chair of the Forward Party, remains a passionate supporter of RCV despite his own loss using the system in the 2021 New York City mayoral election. He has championed ranked-choice elections since entering the political scene with his 2020 presidential campaign.

A number of Forwardists, however, contend that RCV has drawbacks which warrant consideration of other voting systems. The chief concern they have with RCV is that it will not go far enough to end the third party “spoiler effect,” although the vast majority of Forwardists who champion other voting methods are not opponents of RCV. They broadly view it as a positive step in terms of boosting civility and reducing partisanship, but question the extent to which it can benefit independents and third party candidates.

The issue of strategic voting—which occurs when voters cast a ballot for someone other than their sincere preference due to the constraints of the voting system—must be addressed with each voting method considered. Traditional choose-one voting most heavily incentivizes strategic voting by reducing independent and third party candidates to mere electoral spoilers. RCV aims to eliminate strategic voting by assuring voters that they can sincerely vote for their favorite candidate first and still rank their preferred Democrat or Republican second.

Critics of RCV reason that voters are still likely to rank major party candidates first out of fear of giving the opposing major party a first-round victory, thus leaving incentives to vote strategically for major party candidates in place. Forwardists who have doubts about the efficacy of RCV promote either approval or STAR voting as an alternative approach to eliminating the spoiler effect.

[Click here to try RCV for yourself: Rank political parties in the U.S.]


II. Approval Voting

Election 2020 watch function [Credit—US Embassy from New Zealand, Public Domain]

Approval voting is less familiar to American voters than RCV, although it has seen something of a breakthrough in recent years.

In November 2018, Fargo, North Dakota became the first U.S. city to implement approval voting for municipal elections. Two years later, St. Louis, Missouri became the second. Similar to how Maine, Alaska, and Nevada passed RCV, both cities implemented approval voting as a result of ballot initiatives.

Activists in Fargo pushed for an alternative voting system in response to a 2016 election in which choose-one voting led to two city commissioners winning their offices with just 16 and 15 percent of the vote. An organization called Reform Fargo, led by Jed Limke, was launched to find a suitable alternative. The group did consider RCV before landing on approval, though Limke explained that they found it rather difficult to explain RCV to voters, whereas people were quick to understand approval.

In 2018, 63 percent of the city voted in favor of a switch to approval, and in 2020, Fargo voters became the first Americans to elect their officials using the system. The winning candidates earned 55 and 53 percent of the vote, a striking improvement from the small minorities that elected the city’s previous commissioners. A survey released just days after the first use of the new system reported that 71 percent of Fargo voters found approval voting “easy.”

Approval voting allows voters to “approve” of as many—or as few—candidates as they choose, and the candidate with the most approval votes wins. The ability to cast equally-weighted votes for multiple candidates aims to expand freedom of choice on the ballot and eliminate incentives for strategic voting. Supporters believe that it goes even farther than RCV to eliminate the third party spoiler effect since a vote of approval for a minor party candidate does not deny a Democratic or Republican candidate a first-place vote. An approval vote for a third party candidate does not take away a vote from either major party candidate. In an RCV system, however, your second choice is counted only if your first choice is eliminated.

The Forward Party of Utah has partnered with Utah Approves to bring approval voting to elections in the Beehive State.

Similar to RCV, candidates who seek consensus and can win votes from across the ideological spectrum are most likely to benefit from approval voting. The popular strategy in choose-one elections of riling up a party’s base would be less effective than seeking the approval of a broad, multi-party coalition. A shift in candidates’ electoral incentives towards cooperation and moderation would erect a guardrail against the impact of partisanship, even if it does not immediately lead to independent and third party candidates winning elections.

An approval system, at a minimum, would offer third parties a degree of leverage by compelling major party candidates to seek the approval of other candidates’ supporters. At best, it would weaken the spoiler effect to the point that new parties could become viable.

In an approval election, voters do not have the ability to favor a first-choice candidate as they do with RCV. Advocates of RCV suggest that approval elections do not go far enough in reducing strategic voting since voters could feel inclined to select only one candidate so as to avoid helping someone other than their first choice. Voters may hesitate to cast votes of equal weight for multiple candidates if they do not feel equally supportive of those other candidates. On the other hand, a voter’s second choice in a ranked-choice election is not counted unless their first choice is eliminated.

In practical terms, advocates of approval voting note that many states have voting machines that are not equipped to handle RCV. States that switch to RCV may have to spend millions of dollars to replace machines, though such replacements are necessary for most of those with old machines anyways. In Connecticut, RCV has emerged as a priority for a number of lawmakers—including Governor Ned Lamont—and the need for new voting machines has not yet appeared to be a notable obstacle. An approval ballot, however, looks the same as current ballots do, meaning that new machines are not required for implementation of approval voting.

Approval voting can elect winners with just a plurality of the vote, as often happens with choose-one voting. The system’s incentives towards consensus candidates makes it less likely than it is in a choose-one system, yet it remains a possibility. RCV supporters would argue that their system ensures majority support. Supporters of the third and final voting method included in the Forward platform, STAR voting, would argue the same thing.

On the other hand, STAR supporters largely agree with the concerns with RCV voiced by approval advocates. They believe that their system has incorporated the best aspects of the other two methods while eliminating their shortcomings.

[Click here to try approval voting for yourself: Approve political parties in the U.S.]

III. Score-then-automatic-runoff (STAR) Voting

STAR voting campaign sign [Credit—STAR Voting]

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First coined as a concept in 2014 by electric vehicle entrepreneur and video game programmer Mark Frohnmayer, score-then-automatic-runoff voting (STAR) has yet to be implemented in a U.S. city, despite several attempts in Oregon. A 2018 ballot measure in Lane County to enact STAR fell short by a margin of just 5 percent.

The STAR movement is centered in a handful of Oregon cities. In addition to a second attempt in Lane County, supporters worked to bring STAR referendums to at least two cities in 2020. Though none were successful, the Democratic, Libertarian and Independent parties of Oregon have all adopted STAR for internal elections since 2018. Given that the movement began in Oregon not even ten years ago, its momentum seems noteworthy.

The Forward Party of Oregon has partnered with the Equal Vote Coalition to advance STAR voting to the 2024 ballot in the Beaver State.

STAR voting combines elements of both RCV, approval, and choose-one voting. This novel voting system asks voters to rate each candidate individually on a scale of 0 to 5 stars. After the initial tally, the two candidates with the highest total “stars” advance to a runoff. The finalists then earn a vote for each ballot which rated them higher than the other, and the candidate with the most votes between the two wins.

Advocates argue that STAR fuses the range of preference allowed by RCV and the ability to support multiple candidates at the same time in approval elections. The STAR system promises to enhance the level of nuance that can be conveyed in a vote. Of the three methods included in the Forward Party platform, STAR gives voters the broadest freedom to express refined views. The system also claims a simpler tabulation process than RCV since STAR elections will never require more than two rounds.

The STAR system aims to reduce strategic voting by allowing voters to express more precisely their feelings towards multiple candidates. Similar to approval voting, support for a third party candidate does not take a vote away from a major party candidate, thus offering new parties leverage to earn representation.

Critics contend that STAR voting opens the door to “burying” tactics in which voters could give 5 stars to minor candidates in the hopes of elevating them over a more viable candidate whom they oppose. Voters may have an incentive to vote strategically in an effort to undermine a major candidate whom they oppose, rather than expressing their honest opinions on each candidate.

Supporters of the system reject these arguments on the basis that if a voter is concerned with their favorite candidate advancing to the runoff, giving stars to other candidates only makes it more likely that their first choice will be squeezed out of the runoff by their second choice.

A frequently-asked question about STAR is whether it upholds the principle of “one person, one vote.” Supporters do not believe that a STAR system has any issues with regard to this principle since the automatic runoff narrows the field of candidates to two finalists and then awards one vote per person based on which of those two candidates was rated higher on each ballot. If a voter gives both finalists an equal number of stars, their ballot is counted as a vote of no preference between the two.

Supporters of RCV and approval counter that STAR is the most difficult to understand of the three methods. Casual voters may be deterred by a system that asks them to express nuanced views on every candidate, the reasoning goes, since many Americans are not particularly interested in spending their time researching candidates. In this sense, there is a risk that STAR voting could depress voter turnout. However, just as claims that RCV would be too confusing proved to be largely unfounded, the same may ultimately be true of STAR. Most of us are thoroughly familiar with all three of these methods, it just takes some thought to connect it to a real-world example.

All kinds of online customer reviews, from restaurants to Amazon products, are done using the framework of STAR voting. Although some or all three of these methods may seem confusing at first, all of us are more familiar with them than we know.

Considering the fact that STAR voting was coined as a concept just nine years ago, its growth is impressive. With the help of Oregon Forwardists, supporters aim to place STAR on a statewide ballot for the first time next year.

Each of the three voting methods included in the Forward Party platform has the support of at least one state chapter of the party, and many Forwardists who prefer one method or another ultimately hope to see different methods experimented with in different states.

[Click here to try STAR voting for yourself: Score political parties in the U.S.]

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Forwardists hope that their party can be a home for advocates of RCV, approval, and STAR voting alike.

Advocates of these reforms all want the same things: more representative elections, a more meaningful vote, and an end to the spoiler effect, to name a few. The similarities in their goals far outweigh the differences in their approaches. A STAR supporter should be thrilled to see their state replace choose-one with RCV, just as an RCV supporter should be thrilled to see their state replace choose-one with STAR.

RCV allows voters to rank their choices, but a voter’s second choice is only counted if their first is eliminated. Approval voting allows voters to vote for as many candidates as they want, but they cannot favor a first choice over a second choice. STAR voting allows voters both to rank candidates and to vote for as many as they want, but it could open the door to “burying” tactics that would not reflect honest votes. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks, though there is room to debate which is the best option. The drawbacks of choose-one voting, on the other hand, are unparalleled.

The reality of choose-one voting is that it has degraded American democracy to the point that just 15 percent of elections nationwide in 2022 were competitive. 39 states are not a two-party system but a one-party system. More than 40 percent of Americans nationwide are independent, and almost two-thirds say that a third party is needed.

RCV, approval, and STAR voting each promise to expand freedom of choice, reduce partisanship, promote coalition-building, and restore confidence that a vote has an impact. Each method has at least one state Forward Party chapter that is gearing up to gather signatures for a 2024 ballot referendum.

Momentum for all three is soaring around the country. In a few years, the debate of which is best will have a wealth of new real-world examples to choose from.

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2020 DNC Presidential Delegate Elections — STAR Voting

2022 FiveThirtyEight Election Forecast — FiveThirtyEight

2022 Primary Election — Libertarian Party of Oregon

Approval Voting — The Center for Election Science

Approval Voting vs. RCV — The Center for Election Science

Biden, Congress Job Ratings Unchanged After Midterm Elections — Gallup

CT officials mull ranked-choice voting this session — The CT Mirror

Does STAR Voting pass One-Person-One-Vote? — STAR Voting

Electoral Systems — FairVote

The Equal Vote Coalition

Fargo City Results — North Dakota Secretary of State

Fargo, North Dakota, Measure 1, Approval Voting Initiative (November 2018) — Ballotpedia

Fargo’s First Approval Voting Election: Results and Voter Experience — The Center for Election Science

Georgia Could Be the Next State to Try Ranked Choice Voting — Reason

Independent Party of Oregon Will Use STAR Voting In 2020 Primary Election, Open to all Independent and Non-Affiliated Voters — STAR Voting

Lane County, Oregon, Measure 20-290, Score Then Automatic Runoff Voting Method (November 2018) — Ballotpedia

New Poll Shows 82% of Maine CD-2 Voters Find Ranked Choice Voting Easy — FairVote

Party Affiliation — Gallup Historical Trends

Platform — Forward Party

Polling Shows Alaskan Voters Understand Ranked Choice Voting — Alaskans for Better Elections

Ranked Choice Voting and Youth Voter Turnout: The Roles of Campaign Civility and Candidate Contact — Professors Joseph A. Coll and Courtney L. Juelich

Ranked choice voting just had its biggest Election Day ever — FairVote

Ranked Choice Voting Legislation — FairVote Action

Research and data on RCV in practice — FairVote

St. Louis, Missouri, Proposition D, Approval Voting Initiative (November 2020) — Ballotpedia

STAR Voting

State government trifectas — Ballotpedia

Support for Third U.S. Political Party at High Point — Gallup

Utah Approves

Vote for everyone you like: Fargo tests approval voting — MPR News

Voting Error across Multiple Ballot Types: Results from Super Tuesday (2020), Experiments in Four American States — Professor Jason Maloy

Wouldn’t I want to “bury” a strong second choice and give a higher score to a weaker opponent to help my favorite win? — STAR Voting