By Jason Clark
Democrats in Southern Oregon face some tough choices in the May 15 primary election. The Congressional District 2 contest has seven candidates, while State Senate District 3 has four. Unfortunately, the will of the electorate may or may not be reflected in the outcome of the elections.
This is because the voting method we are all used to, known as plurality voting, fails miserably at reflecting the will of voters in contests with more than two candidates. Because each voter has only one vote, those who like more than one candidate have less voting power than those who like just one.
Plurality voting is notorious for the spoiler effect, that by honestly voting for your favorite candidate, you may be helping to elect your least favorite candidate. This problem inevitably leads to a two-party system, corresponding with a limited and polarized political debate with too few participants to hold each other fully accountable. This system limits participation of potential candidates and limits choices for voters.
Fortunately, there is an alternative to plurality voting that has the potential to reinvigorate our political process, expand choices and, more importantly, accurately register the will of the voters.
Some of the alternative voting systems that have been implemented in various municipalities and some states include Top Two runoff voting, Approval Voting, and Ranked Choice Voting (also known as Instant Runoff Voting). But each of these systems has flaws and fails to fully reflect the will of the electorate.
With Top Two, the runoff election provides for voter equality, but the first round of voting suffers from the same pitfalls as any other multi-candidate race. Approval Voting suffers from the problem that expressing approval of a lesser choice may hurt the chances of electing one’s first choice. Ranked Choice Voting does not solve the problem of the spoiler effect, and it suffers from the problem that by the time your first choice is eliminated your second choice may have already been eliminated at a previous stage, meaning that your second-choice vote was never counted.
STAR Voting is a method that reflects the will of the electorate better than all others and is the least vulnerable to manipulation through strategic voting. Developed by voting science experts and fair election advocates at the Equal Voting Conference in Eugene in 2014, STAR voting (which stands for Score Then Automatic Runoff) allows the voter to score each candidate on a scale of 0 to 5, just like rating a movie on Netflix or a product on Amazon. Scores are totaled for each candidate followed by a runoff between the candidates with the top two scores. The data needed for the runoff already exists on the ballot, so long as the voter gave the two finalists different scores. The finalist that the voter scored more highly gets their vote in the runoff. The automatic runoff part of the procedure corrects for any distortion in the scoring process and encourages voters to differentiate their preferences, so they are not left out of the runoff vote.
Oregon has a legacy of progressive electoral procedures designed to increase participation. Vote-by-mail and the Motor Voter law help to make Oregon a state with one of the highest turnouts in the country. STAR Voting is in keeping with that tradition. The Equal Vote Coalition (www.equal.vote), is mounting voter initiative campaigns to put the use of STAR Voting for county elections on the ballot in Lane and Multnomah Counties this November. They are also initiating conversations about STAR Voting at the municipal and state levels.
If STAR Voting were used in the Democratic primaries for Congressional District 2 and State Senate District 3, the winners might very well be different than those who will win May 15, when the winning margins will likely be narrow. In any election with more than two candidates, when all the votes are counted, we still do not truly know the will of the electorate. While the use of STAR Voting would certainly invigorate primary elections, the major democratizing effect of STAR Voting would be in general elections when minor party and unaffiliated candidates are no longer systematically excluded as potential spoilers.
Jason Clark lives in Talent.