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STAR Voting is Simply Powerful

July 30th, 2018 by dk

Voting should be made simple, but making something simple is often complicated. Oregon has been a leader in voting reforms, but it’s important to also pay attention to larger trends in the country. Mark Frohnmayer and Alan Zundel are pushing the latest reform, but they can be likened to salmon swimming upstream. Whether they can reach their goal and spawn a new format for voting remains to be seen.

Their innovation is called STAR Voting — “score, then automatic runoff.” Voters rate each candidate with up to five stars, as they would a restaurant in a Yelp review. The top two candidates are then automatically compared to see which is preferred by more voters. It’s elegant and economical, and it may be coming to Lane County.

It’s less complex than its predecessor, Ranked Choice Voting, which requires voters to rank candidates from best to worst. This would be like if Yelp required every reviewer to say whether this Italian restaurant is better or worse than every other nearby Italian restaurant. Ranked Choice Voting requires more from voters than they may feel they have. Maine is giving Ranked Choice Voting a whirl, but it has produced some dizzying effects — even before the first vote is counted.

More about Maine in a moment. Ohio has attracted more attention, so we’ll start there.

Last week the United States Supreme Court affirmed a scheme promoted by Ohio Republicans to purge that state’s voter rolls with unprecedented haste. Any registered voter who has not voted for two years will be presumed dead, or moved, or uninterested in participating in democracy by the state’s voting officials, unless that person takes action to remedy the situation.

A postcard will be mailed to the voter’s last known address. Failure to respond will result in the voter being purged from voter registration laws. Contrast this policy with Oregon’s and the breadth of political practicalities becomes evident. In Oregon, a new voter must actively decline if they don’t want to participate in democracy. As the first state in the nation to implement a so-called “voter-motor” law, everyone with a car or a driver’s license is automatically registered to vote.

Ohio is following a trend across the south and Midwest to restrict voter rights. The movement gained momentum after Barack Obama was elected in 2008. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 20 states have made it harder to vote since 2010. That doesn’t include Maine, but it should.

Maine’s voters in 2016 approved ranked-choice voting by referendum. Republicans don’t like ranked-choice voting, because it disempowers spoiler candidates and is designed to prevent anyone from winning an election without the approval of the majority of voters. Maine’s Republican Governor Paul LePage especially hates ranked-choice voting, because he wouldn’t have won his statewide races if it had been in place.

Republican legislators in Maine voted to effectively prevent ranked-choice voting in 2017. This prompted another voter referendum to veto that 2017 law. That vote took place this past Tuesday, along with the state’s first implementation of ranked-choice voting for this year’s primary.

When it became clear that Maine voters liked the reform, the legislature defunded voter education about the change. The governor has refused to provide state trooper security for transporting votes. (Supporters have hired private security firms to do the work.)

LePage has warned the state that he will refuse to certify the results if the latest referendum wins. The state’s secretary of state dismissed LePage’s role as “ceremonial.” Tuesday’s election results will be binding, whether LePage certifies them or not.

It looks like Maine’s voting innovation will survive the attacks it has attracted from the state’s governor and Republican-controlled legislature. But it hasn’t been an easy fight. Frohnmayer and Zundel do not anticipate such prominent opposition, at least not locally. But their vision is for the reform they have formulated to be tested here and then replicated across the country.

The waters elsewhere will be less inviting. The journey Frohnmayer and Zundel envision won’t be easy. Fortunately, Oregonians know something about swimming upstream.


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

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