Score voting, also known as range voting, is a method in which voters assign a score to each candidate, typically a score between 0 and 5. The winner is the candidate who has the highest sum (or sometimes average) of scores.
Score voting has not been used in any jurisdiction in the U.S. for government elections. It is used in non-governmental contests such as certain sporting events in which judges assign scores to the competitors (and ones famously prone to tactical voting, as in controversial figure skating competitions).
Score Voting has never been used in a public government election
While RCV has a 100-year track record of delivering voter-preferred outcomes and improving representation, there is little evidence of how score voting may work in real political elections. Claims made by score voting supporters are based on simulated hypothetical elections, rather than real-world results.
RCV has a demonstrated track record of improving representation for women and people of color.
There is no evidence that score voting would benefit these groups.
Votes for a back-up choice can harm your first choice in score voting.
Expressing support for a second choice in score voting, say, giving a score of four to your second-favorite candidate, can help propel your second choice ahead of your first choice. This creates an incentive for voters to strategically use the score ballot like a "choose-one" ballot, only expressing a preference for their favorite candidate and not to other candidates they might, in actuality, find acceptable. If many voters succumb to this strategic voting, broadly acceptable candidates could lose out to a more fringe candidate who garners top marks from a dedicated base.
In RCV, a voter’s ranking for a backup choice only counts if their first choice is defeated, eliminating the incentive to strategically deny support for a second-choice candidate.
Score voting might not elect a majority-preferred candidate.
For example, consider an election with 3 Democratic candidates and 2 Republican candidates in a city where most voters favor Democrats. Score voting could lead to a Republican victory because it does not necessarily prevent vote-splitting between similar constituencies.
For a real-world example of this issue in practice, consider the 2016 election for state treasurer in Washington state, which uses top-two voting.
This was not a score voting election and each voter was permitted to vote for only one candidate in the first round. However, the results may be instructive when considering the impacts of score voting. If voters in score voting are unwilling to assign scores to multiple candidates, the results could be similar to the choose-one results above, in which a clear majority for one party fails to elect a candidate from that group.
In RCV, voters may rank backup choices without fear that it will harm their first choice candidate. Therefore, a majority faction can consolidate support around a front-runner candidate from that party rather than splitting the vote.
Subjectivity of preferences in score voting.
Different voters may interpret a score of 5 in different ways, giving them different amounts of power over the election outcome. For example, consider two voters, Amy and David, who are not excited about any of the candidates on the ballot. Amy gives a 3 to one of the candidates and 2 to the others, to express her middling support. David feels the same way as Amy about the candidates, but gives a score of 5 to one candidate and zero to the others. David now has more impact on the outcome than Amy, even though they feel the same way about all of the candidates, because the two voters are inconsistent in how they express their preferences. Just as rating a film on a scale from 1-5 is highly subjective, scoring candidates from 1-5 is likelier than RCV to yield inconsistent returns.
Score voting rewards strategic/savvy voters.
Savvy voters who have the most robust understanding of score voting can ensure their vote is highly impactful, while other voters may miss out. If a voter is not excited about a candidate, but wants their vote to count more, they are incentivized to give their favorite candidate a score of 5 and bury support for any other candidate. This, ironically, means less nuance and fewer back-up choices on the ballot.
Score voting has not been used in public governmental elections in the U.S. to date, although it is used by the Green Party of Utah to elect party officers.
For this example, we consider the election for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 2020 for district 1. It was an RCV election so we have full ballot data from all voters. Below are the round-by-round RCV results.
In this election, candidates Connie Chan and David Lee campaigned together in the final days of the campaign, asking voters to rank them as first and second choice because they would both “fight for our Chinese American community”. In the final round of the election when Lee was eliminated, just enough of Lee voters preferred Chan to deliver her a narrow victory to Chan.
Chan and Lee could employ such a strategy because RCV allows voters to rank backup choices without fear that it would harm their first choice.
If this election had used score voting instead, it is likely that more David Lee voters would have abstained from assigning scores to later choices, denying Chan the ability to consolidate support and build power for her community. In score voting, any scores assigned to second- or third-choice candidates could help to defeat a voter’s favorite candidate, so voters have a strong incentive not to assign scores to candidates who have any chance of defeating their favorite.
This is a key example of how RCV helps communities build power and earn representation, rather than dividing support between multiple choices.