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Rebooting STAR Voting

December 17th, 2018 by dk

Lane County voters narrowly declined to endorse Measure 20-290 on Tuesday. It would have ended our traditional “Ebert-Siskel” system — thumbs-up for one candidate — and replace it with a “Rotten Tomatoes” system, where each voter/reviewer assigns up to five stars for each candidate.

If co-petitioners Mark Frohnmayer and Alan Zundel were disappointed in their measure’s defeat, they were careful not to show it. “We were really encouraged that [it] got almost half the votes,” Zundel said. “That was really amazing to us.”

Frohnmayer referred to the defeat as “a phenomenal foundation for a truly groundbreaking reform.” Those are not the words of two guys who are giving up on their dream of changing how voters cast ballots. Looking back, they may have made three miscalculations in making their case to voters.

First, they believed the economics of STAR voting would appeal to voters. Having a single election with its automatic runoff feature instead of two elections would reduced government expenses, but voters care less about money once it’s left their pockets. Government efficiency was in this case not tangible enough to animate voters.

Second, related to the first, backers wanted to introduce the system at a large enough scale that the efficiency savings would be substantial. They focused their initial efforts on two of Oregon’s largest counties: Multnomah and Lane. If voters in Eugene and Portland liked STAR voting, a statewide initiative would be an obvious next step.

Third, they allowed the debate to become focused on the mechanics of the new system, rather than on the tangible improvements that voters, candidates, and even non-voting citizens could see as result of the reform. STAR voting is harder to explain than it is to use. Some things are better done than said.

Frohnmayer and Zundel will learn, because they are determined. I have no doubt they’ve already begun devising their next tack. They shouldn’t be afraid to go small. Cottage Grove has always had a wild streak in their civic life that goes unnoticed by outsiders, until they see something different underway there. Oakridge has made headlines recently that should attract keen interest in electoral reforms.

The Oregon Country Fair values decision-making that is inclusive and transparent. They might want to give STAR voting a whirl. Eugene’s neighborhood associations could also pilot the practice.

As groups or small cities experiment with STAR voting, misunderstanding will emerge. That feedback must be valued. They will form the necessary foundation for training and promotion materials that some found lacking in Measure 20-290’s campaign.

Any populist reform can succeed only if its deep structure appeals to those with a shallow understanding. People like what seems simple, even if it’s not. The engineering behind STAR voting is fascinating, but knowledgeable mechanics don’t always make the best salespeople.

Frohnmayer also runs a car company. His engineers understand that inside a bell housing, a fluid coupling acts as a torque converter to planetary gearsets. But no amount of technical knowledge about the inner workings of an automatic transmission will make the sale. That comes after people take it for a spin.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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