STAR voting (“Score Then Automatic Runoff”) is a combination of Range Voting and Two-Round Runoff voting methods. Voters assign a score to each candidate, typically a score between 0 and 5, and the points are tabulated as votes over two rounds. The first round consists of adding the scores given to each candidate and selecting the two with the highest total scores. Those two then face off in the second round, where the winner is the finalist who is preferred by a higher number of voters.
STAR voting has not been used in any jurisdiction in the U.S. for government elections, but has been used twice for party elections. STAR voting was used by the Independent Party of Oregon for their 2020 primary election, and the Democratic Party of Oregon for delegate selection in 2020 after a presidential primary held with a traditional single-choice voting rule.
STAR 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 STAR voting may work in real political elections. Claims made by STAR supporters are based on simulated hypothetical elections, rather than real-world results.
STAR Most Likely Leads to More Inactive Ballots in the Final Round
Both methods lead to some inactive ballots in the final round, but RCV appears to consider more ballots in the decisive round. In RCV, inactive ballots occur if a voter chose not to rank any of the finalists. In STAR voting, inactive ballots occur if a voter does not score either finalist or if a voter assigns equal scores to both finalists. In RCV elections, 95% of ballots typically count in the decisive round. Early experiences with STAR voting suggest STAR may lead to many more inactive ballots in the final round. See “STAR Voting in Practice” for more on inactive ballots in STAR elections.
RCV has a demonstrated track record of improving representation for women and people of color.
There is no evidence that STAR voting would benefit these groups.
Votes for a back-up choice can harm your first choice in STAR voting.
Expressing support for a second choice in STAR voting, say, giving four stars to your second-favorite candidate, can help propel your second choice into the runoff round ahead of your first choice. This creates an incentive for voters to strategically use the STAR ballot like a "choose-one" ballot, only giving stars to 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. Hypothetically, the existence of a final round could mitigate this incentive for strategic voting, but in practice it appears that many STAR voters still prefer to score only their top candidate, giving zero stars to all opponents (see STAR Voting in Practice).
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.
STAR voting might not elect a majority-preferred candidate.
Because backup preferences count at the same time as ratings for a voter's first choice, and because voters won't all using ratings the same way, it is possible for the preference(s) of the majority of voters to be overridden, with majority-preferred candidates not advancing to the final round.
For example, consider an election with 3 Democratic candidates and 2 Republican candidates in a city where most voters favor Democrats. STAR voting could lead to a Republican victory because it does not necessarily prevent vote-splitting between similar constituencies. (This example highlights a failure of the technical property called “mutual majority criterion”. STAR voting also fails the related “majority criterion”.)
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 STAR voting election and each voter was permitted to vote for only one candidate in the first round. However, the results are instructive when considering the impacts of STAR voting and help to explain the questionable Independent Party of Oregon primary results below. If voters in a STAR voting election are unwilling to assign scores to multiple candidates, the STAR results could be similar to the choose-one results above, in which a clear majority for one party fails to advance any of their preferred candidates to the final round.
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 STAR voting.
Different voters may interpret “5 stars” 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 “3 stars” to one of the candidates and “2 stars” to the others, to express her middling support. David feels the same way as Amy about the candidates, but gives four stars to one candidate and zero stars to the rest of the candidates. 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, rating candidates from 1-5 is likelier than RCV to yield inconsistent returns.
STAR voting in the courts.
Any jurisdiction adopting STAR voting is rolling the dice on legal grounds. The system has never been evaluated through the lens of principles of American democracy like majority rule and "one person, one vote". Voters will have very different voting power based on how they use their scores. Some voters will cast far more first round points than others and many voters will not have a vote that counts in the runoff - with both particularly problematic because casting fewer points or not differentiating between the runoff candidates will often be the result of rational decisions to not want to use score that might result in your compromise choice denying your favorite from making the runoff.
STAR voting rewards strategic/savvy voters.
Savvy voters who have the most robust understanding of STAR 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 five stars and not rate any other candidate. This, ironically, means less nuance and fewer back-up choices on the ballot.
Because STAR has not been used in public government elections anywhere in the world, we rely on limited evidence from party primary elections to determine who it works in practice.
Most STAR voters do not score multiple candidates.
In 2020, the Oregon Independent Party ran its own primary with STAR voting. The results were odd on their own terms: voters backed Joe Biden handily over Donald Trump for president, for example, yet none of the three Democrats (including the one ultimately elected) even made the top two in the Secretary of State race.
Most voters “bullet-voted”, or scored only a single candidate. For the presidential and the secretary of state race, the rate of scoring multiple candidates was 45% and 49% respectively. In both races, the majority of voters used the STAR ballot just like a "choose-one" ballot, only giving support to a single candidate.
The secretary of state race stands out because it included 6 candidates -- 3 Democrats, 1 Republican, and 2 Independents. In a crowded race with multiple candidates with similar ideologies, voters should have had strong incentives to express multiple preferences. However, most voters didn’t engage with the expressive ballot. More analysis of this particular election can be found in the Example Election section below.
Ultimately, most voters are still treating these like choose-one elections, meaning STAR voting may not solve the problems of plurality voting.
Fewer Votes Count in Final Round than in RCV Elections.
The rate of inactive ballots in the final round, also known as “no preference” votes, in elections for president, secretary of state, and treasurer were 5%, 30%, and 16% respectively. Compare that to RCV with a median rate of 5% of ballots not counting in the decisive round. At best, it appears STAR can perform on par with RCV in high-profile elections where voters have strong opinions, like Presidential elections. But for most of these elections, STAR considers fewer voters’ preferences in the final round.
This is a deep dive into the Oregon Independent Party primary for Secretary of State in 2020. Below are results from the STAR voting election.
The three Democrats divide the vote and none of them make the runoff. Here are the results of the second and final round of the STAR voting election. In this round, Republican Thatcher won with only 36% of the vote. Independent Smith was right behind Thatcher with 34%, and 30% of ballots were inactive.
The 30% of voters who expressed no preference between Thatcher and Smith could include some voters who assigned them each the same score, and some voters who didn't give either of them a score. The voters whose ballots became inactive were mostly Democratic-leaning voters. According to STAR advocates, of the 30% inactive ballots:
In today’s highly polarized environment, it is a stretch of the imagination to assert that those Democratic-leaning voters genuinely had no preference between the Republican and Independent. Had that group of voters felt empowered to express sincere preferences without the threat that expressing any support for the Independent would harm Democratic candidates, the Independent would more than overcome the two-point deficit in the final round, yielding a result that likely would be a better reflection of the voters.