Running Ranked Choice Voting Elections with OpaVote

Posted by Austin Plier on August 18, 2016

OpaVote is a website for running elections online, and in this blog post we interview, Jeff O'Neill, the founder of OpaVote and a former FairVote legal intern in 2003. If you are part of an organization that holds elections using ranked choice voting, then you may find OpaVote a useful service for running your election.

How did you get interested in ranked-choice voting?

Before the year 2000, I didn't have much involvement in politics, but Ralph Nader's campaign for president inspired me to get involved. My mom was a big fan of Ralph Nader from his work to improve automobile safety, and his messages about reforming the political system, corporate responsibility, and income inequality really struck a chord with me. I became an active member of the Massachusetts Green Party, helped put Nader on the ballot, and helped organize the Boston super rally.

Supporting a third party makes it painfully clear how voting methods discriminate third parties and minority groups. For executive offices, plurality voting discourages supporting third parties because of the spoiler effect. For legislative offices, single-member districts prevent a third party or minority group from winning any seats even if it is supported by a large percentage of the population.

A friend of mine at the time explained to me how ranked choice voting works and how it provides much fairer outcomes for both executive and legislative offices (with multi-member districts). I was blown away! It was so obvious to me that ranked-choice voting would vastly improve our political system, and I couldn't believe that we were stuck with plurality voting for electing our leaders.

Why did you create OpaVote?

OpaVote started off as an academic exercise. I was fascinated by ranked choice voting, and I wanted to better understand how it worked. During my first year of law school in 2002, I would take breaks from my law school studies to write Python software to implement different ranked choice voting methods.

After working on it for a little while, I was surprised that there wasn't really any software available to help organizations count ballots using ranked choice voting. I wanted more people to use ranked choice voting, so I launched the OpenSTV project to make it easier for organizations to use better and fairer voting methods.

Around 2011, I came to the realization, that just being able to count ballots wasn't enough. To truly make it easier for organizations to run ranked choice voting elections, they needed help with the entire election process, from making it easy to allow voters to cast ranked ballots online to counting the ranked ballots and presenting the results online. OpaVote was launched to fill that need.

Who uses OpaVote?

Most of OpaVote's customers are non-profit organizations, student groups, and political parties. Many of these groups use OpaVote once a year for electing officers, boards, and committees. Others use OpaVote for decision making, such as members of a labor union voting on a negotiated agreement. Others use OpaVote for more casual elections, such as where to go to dinner with your friends on a Friday night.

What kinds of voting methods does OpaVote support?

All of them! Well, not exactly, but a lot of them. One of the most important features of OpaVote is that it implements ranked choice voting EXACTLY as used by governments. If your organization wants to use ranked choice voting to elect a president, then you could use the San Francisco rules, which count the votes in the same exact way that the city of San Francisco does. If you are electing a committee, then you can use the Scottish STV (single transferable vote) rules to count the votes in the same exact way that Scotland does. This avoids any ambiguity of how the votes should be counted.

How does an organization run an election with OpaVote?

An organization running an election, should appoint an election manager to coordinate the election. This election manager logs in to OpaVote to create an account. The manager can then create an election and provide the details, such as a title, a description, and the list of candidates.  The manager also specifies the list of voters, such as by providing a list of email addresses.  OpaVote then sends an email to each voter with a secure voting link.  When the voting is over, the manager can count the votes, and then publish them so the voters can see the results.

OpaVote elections with fewer than 25 voters are free. If you have more voters, the price is $5 for each 100 voters. OpaVote is much less expensive than other providers, some of whom charge 10 times more and don't even support ranked choice voting. See our pricing page for more details.

Do you have any advice for organizations using OpaVote?

Definitely take your time, read the instructions, and double check everything to make sure you have a smooth election. It sometimes happens that a manager forgets a candidate, and then the manager has to cancel the election and start a new one with the correct list of candidates! It is best to run a test election or two to make sure you fully understand how OpaVote works, read our documentation, and to have a colleague proof read the election page before the election starts.

Getting voters to vote can sometimes be challenging. To maximize voter turnout, it helps to make it as easy as possible for voters to vote. Make sure to include information about the candidates on the election page or at least include links to make it easy for voters to understand who they are voting for. Make liberal use of our email reminders, and time your email reminders so that you can send one out the day before the election ends. Many voters procrastinate until the end!

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