Oscar Votes 123: January 2011

Monday, January 31, 2011

For Academy Voters: Four Rules for Voting for Best Picture

With ballots soon to be returned to determine the winners of the Oscars at the Academy Awards, members of the Academy may have questions about the instant runoff voting system used to select the winner of the Best Picture award. Also known as "preferential voting" in Australia, "the alternative vote" in the United Kingdom and "ranked choice voting" in some American cities, instant runoff voting has been used in the Best Picture category since 2009.

Not everything Oscar analysts are saying about the system is accurate, however. Here are four key points for Academy voters to keep in mind when filling out a ranked choice ballot for Best Picture.

1. To vote, you simply rank the nominated movies in order of preference, indicating your first choice, second choice and so on. Voting is literally as easy as “1, 2, 3.’ Oscar ballots are counted according to a straightforward counting procedure that allows voters’ backup choices to be taken into account if their first choice has been defeated. To read about the details of the process, see our earlier post.

2. Voters should rank as their first choice the movie they most want to win and their second choice as their sincere next favorite. A voter should vote sincerely, starting with your first choice, onto your second choice and so on until you are indifferent about the remaining choices. Any effort to help your favorite movie by changing your order of preference is foolhardy and nearly certain to backfire.

3. Rank as many movies as you can without concern about hurting your first choice. A voter’s ballot is only counted for one movie at a time and your second choice will never count against the chances of your first choice. That’s because your vote will only count for your second-choice film if your first-choice film is eliminated from contention. Suppose you really want to see your top choice to win, but its top competitor is your sincere second choice. Ranking that competing movie as your actual second choice will not have any effect on the chances of your first choice winning – rather, it’s only potential impact is to help that second choice defeat the remaining movies.

4. Don't rank the same movie more than once. Ranking a movie multiple times (e.g. as 1st, 2nd and 3rd choice) will not help that candidate’s chances of winning. Because your backup choices only come into play once your first choice has been eliminated, repeated rankings of a movie do nothing to help that movie.

Note: As discussed in this earlier post, there are two different forms of “preferential voting” used by the Academy. The other variation used to select nominations is called choice voting. It is a form of proportional representation designed to nominate potential Oscar winners who reflect the strong preferences of as many Academy voters as possible.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

With choice voting for Oscar nominations, passion wins

In the days since the nominations of the 83rd Oscars’ ceremony awards were announced, the entertainment press has written quite a bit about the surprises, along with the usual talk of scandalous snubs. What should be highlighted more, we believe, is the important role of the system used to choose these nominees -- who, no matter matter happens in the final vote, are already winners.

Much attention focuses on the battle for Best Picture, seen by many to be between The King’s Speech and The Social Network, two movies with very different profiles: one telling he story of a king trying to improve his speaking skills in a World War II background while the other telling the story of the more current topic of the early days of Facebook.

But while those movies are the frontrunners, nearly every other nominated film has its advocates. As Jen Chaney for the Washington Post writes:

“Let's just stop arguing, America, and accept the fact that all the movies competing for Oscar's top token of glory are pretty darn good.”

What Chaney doesn’t mention, however, is that this outcome speaks to what it means to use the choice voting form of proportional representation for in the voting for nominations, where winning requires having some people really wanting you as a first choice. Earning a nomination is a “win” in itself, and what we have seen this week is the “fair representation” day of victories: nominees in all categories are winners with at least significant numbers of Academy voters.

Entertainment Week this week also has a revealing and entertaining (if poorly named) article about the Oscar voting nomination rules. The magazine held an election for about 2,000 of its readers who voted for Best Picture. Interestingly, using the same counting rules used by the Academy, eight of its ten winners were the same as nominated by the Academy, which reinforces the basic fairness of the voting method. Writer John’s Young final conclusion is exactly right: “A film or performance doesn’t capture a nomination simply by being liked by everyone — it needs to be loved.”

Like the rest of us, of course, not all Academy voters “love” the same kind of performance or the same kind of movie. Some are more traditional, some more interested in change. Some like a certain acting style, others a different one. The idea for nominations is that at least some people are likely to need to think it was a genuine top performance.. If we take for example the Best Picture category, we can praise the fact that a low budget, less well-known movie like Winter’s Bone can earn nominations along with blockbusters like Inception and Toy Story 3.

Not everyone can win, of course. In the documentary category, for example, the influential documentary Waiting for Superman was not nominated, much to the distress of some of the film’s fans. But as AJ Schnack argues in a recent blogpost on “Unraveling the Myths Behind Superman's Oscar Snub" this week it had real competition:

“A surprise is not a snub. Yes, it was a surprise that Waiting for Superman wasn't on Oscar's final list of 5, but we figured a surprise was coming (we just picked the wrong one) and just because it was surprising doesn't make it a snub. As I wrote on Monday, voters were looking for a passion pick to "stand as the emblem of the exceptionally great year that we just had."

For a movie or an artist, earning a nomination in such a prestigious ceremony is really winning one. Thus, to win a nomination, Academy voters – voting in the category they know best, as all nomination voting is restricted to particular categories of Academy voters except for Best Picture -- must be passionate by their work and voters by their performances. That’s a good thing for Oscar nominations – and is good for representation in legislatures.

IRV and the Oscars: How Best Picture is Chosen

Now that nominations for the 83rd Academy Awards have been announced and the final stretch has begun in earnest, pundits and prognosticators have begun dialing in their predictions for the most prominent awards. Perhaps none of these categories attracts more speculation than the coveted Best Picture award. With ten candidates vying for the top spot, the race promises to be wide-open and thrilling.

Given the number of high-quality films this year, odds are that plenty of critics will see their sure-fire pick for Best Picture end up on the wrong side of a post-announcement reaction shot on the night of the ceremony. But fortunately, to help ensure that the winner truly reflects the preferences of Academy voters , the Best Picture award is selected by instant runoff voting.

Instant runoff voting comes with a handful of names: preferential voting in Australia, ranked choice voting in some American cities using it and the alternative vote in the United Kingdom. The adoption of IRV earned a lot of attention last year, including coverage in a USA Today editorial and Vanity Fair. This year it again is drawing coverage. Famed numbers guru Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight.com and The New York Times, posted fascinating article on Tuesday explaining the instant runoff process and showing what outcome of the race for the night’s biggest award would be if the nation’s critics were the voters. It’s highly recommended reading for those interested in a quantitatively grounded perspective on how the contest might play out.

For those who are new to instant runoff voting, here is how the system works – with a series of “instant runoffs” that simulate what would happen if everyone were asked to vote again after the last-place finisher were eliminated before each round of voting:

1. Voters rank candidates in order of preference on their ballot.

2. First choices are counted. If any candidate is ranked 1st on a majority of ballots, then that candidate is declared the winner and the election is over. If not, then the counting process goes on.

3. The candidate ranked 1st on the fewest number of ballots is eliminated. Each of these ballots is counted instead for the candidate ranked 2nd on that ballot.

4. The redistributed ballots are added to the totals of the remaining candidates. If any candidate has over 50% of the ballots in play (the original 1st choices and the redistributed 2nd choices), then that candidate is declared the winner. If not, then the counting process continues.

5. The remaining candidate ranked 1st on the smallest number of ballots is again eliminated. Each of these ballots is counted instead for the candidate ranked 2nd on that ballot. If the candidate ranked 2nd has been eliminated, then the ballot is counted for the candidate ranked 3rd, and so forth.

6. This process of eliminating candidates and redistributing ballots continues until one candidate secures over 50% of the ballots in play.

Thanks to the system, the winner that emerges will accurately represent the preferences of academy voters.

There’s of course no “perfect” voting system, but IRV is a terrific system for handling more than two choices – both because no Oscar voter is going to be able to “trick” the system with insincere voting and because it upholds majority rule. To win an IRV election, a candidate must have support that is both broad and deep: the film must attract strong first-choice support from its enthusiasts while continuing to pick up ballots from supporters of other films who consider it a worthy 2nd or 3rd choice. In the end, the film that is the most strongly and widely by Academy voters liked will be crowned Best Picture.

Because IRV is new to many people, however, some can misunderstand its impact. Some Oscar observers are suggesting that only agreeable,broadly-liked pictures can now win because they don’t understand how important it is to have a strong first choice vote as well as appeal as a second choice. Others think that voters should try to outsmart the system by only voting for one film or perhaps changing the order of their choices, not realizing that a lower-ranked choice never counts against your top-ranked choice and that it would be foolhardy not to rank movies in your true order of choice.

In last year’s Oscars, for example, The Hurt Locker was an upset winner over Avatar, and some observers suggested that IRV must have been the reason. But the fact is that The Hurt Locker’s director Kathryn Bigelow also won the Oscar for Best Director in a plurality vote, clearly not needing IRV to win. The outcome means that in a one-on-one race between the The Hurt Locker and Avatar, it’s highly likely that The Hurt Locker would have won – e.g., it would have been ranked ahead of Avatar on more ballots. That’s an obviously sensible standard to use when picking Best Picture of the year.

Check back in the coming days for more on the race, including our own interactive Best Picture poll. And for more information on instant runoff voting, visit FairVote and instantrunoff.com.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Oscar Nominations Reflect Diverse Views -- and the Race is On

Reflecting the choice voting method that doesn't allow any one faction of Academy voters to dominate the nomination process, a range of films earned one of the ten nominations for Best Picture this morning. The web is buzzing with news and analysis, with The King's Speech earning 12 nominations across the many Oscar categories, followed by True Grit with 10 nominations and The Social Network and Inception with 8.

In addition to The King's Speech, The Social Network and True Grit, seven motion pictures earned nominations for Best Picture, with a mix of Hollywood blockbusters and well-reviewed independent films with relatively minor budgets: Black Swan, The Fighter, True Grit, Kids Are All Right, 127 Hours, Toy Story 3 and Winter’s Bone.

As detailed in our post on the Oscar nomination voting progress, the Academy has relied on the choice voting method of proportional voting for more than a half century, realizing that it ensures a mix of nominees reflecting the full diversity of Academy voters' preferences. It must be working: the Oscar telecast is often the most watched program around the world.

Monday, January 24, 2011

How Oscar Nominees are Selected: Explaining choice voting

On Tuesday, January 25 at 8:30 am, we will learn which achievements have been nominated for each of the 2010 Academy Awards. This announcement, a precursor to the dramatic moment when the final envelopes will be torn open on the night of the ceremony, marks the end of the opening phase of Oscar season and the beginning of the home stretch. It also reflects the results of a nominating election among the 5,755 members of the academy using a proportional representation system known as choice voting or "single transferable vote." Referred to by academy officials as “preferential voting,” choice voting is designed to accommodate a large number of candidates while accurately reflecting the preferences of academy voters. It has been used to for Oscar nominations for more than six decades.

Although choice voting has gotten some bemused attention in the press – Kevin Fallon of the Atlantic calls it a “quirky” method that makes nominations hard to predict -- but despite a few Oscar-specific twists, the system isn’t all that complicated. With an eye to dispelling confusion, here is how the nominations work:

The 5,500 voting members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) are divided into voting groups based on their professional specialty. In the nominating elections, these groups vote only for candidates within their specialty – i.e. actors vote to nominate actors, directors to nominate directors, etc. Only in the Best Picture category do all 5,755 academy members get to vote in the nominating contest.

Each voter receives a ballot with five numbered slots for each category in which the voter is eligible to participate -- except in the case of Best Picture, for which 10 nominees are selected. Although each member gets only one vote, he or she is entitled to choose up to five potential nominees in order of preference (10 for Best Picture).

As explained in FairVote's choice voting video, all ballots are counted to see if any candidate receives a sufficient share of 1st choice rankings to guarantee a nomination: the "victory threshold." The victory threshold is the minimum share of the vote needed to secure a nomination. With ten nominees for Best Picture, the victory threshold is 1/11th of the vote plus one additional vote (or about 9.1%). With five nominees, the victory threshold is 1/6th (or 16.7%) plus one vote.

To see why this number is the victory threshold, imagine a race in which five – and only five – candidates receive exactly enough votes to garner a nomination. What is the fewest number of votes that each nominee could receive while still retaining more votes than every candidate that missed the cut? You might say 1/5th, or 20%, since there are 5 slots available. But the number can go even lower. Let’s say each of the 5 nominated films receives 1/6 of the vote plus one additional vote. This means that when we add up the total number of votes received by each of the 5 nominees, we get 5/6 of the total vote plus 5 additional votes. We notice that less than 1/6th of the vote remains to be distributed among all other candidates outside the top 5. This eliminates the possibility of any candidate outside of the top 5 receiving a share that ties any of the top 5 candidates, since any remaining candidate will necessarily have less than the 1/6 of the vote. Therefore 1/6th plus one vote is the minimum share of the vote per nominee needed to fill the top 5 in the first round, and any candidate in a category with five nominations receiving that share will automatically qualify as a nominee.

If any candidates cross the victory threshold, then they are selected as nominees and one of the five nomination slots is filled (with ten nominees now for Best Picture). But it would be quite unlikely that every slot would be filled in the first round. If open slots for nominations, voters’ backup choices are taken into account according to the following steps:

- The nominees that have passed the victory threshold are elected, and any excess votes beyond that threshold are distributed to the next choice on that ballot. Suppose, for example, The Social Network was the first choice of 20% of Academy voters. That number of votes would be enough for two nominations, so it's important to allow those voters to help pick two of the ten nominees, not just one. So about half of the value of each ballot goes to second choices at an equally reduced value while half of that value remains to nominate The Social Network. (There are different ways of distributing these surplus votes -- sometimes with a random selection of ballots, -- but having ballot count for a next choice at an equally reduced value is the fairest approach.)

- In most choice voting elections, the victory threshold remains constant, with the last winner sometimes falling short of it due to not every voter using all their potential rankings. According to Oscar analyst Steve Pond, the Academy keeps lowering the threshold after each winner to keep as many ballots in play as possible. Thus, if two actors have been nominated, and three remain, the threshold now becomes 1/4th of the remaining votes (meaning those votes not helping to nominate the first winner) plus one. This adjustment happens after each new nominee is selected.

- After all surplus votes are distributed, it is still likely that not all the nomination slots will be filled. At that point, the candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated. All ballots ranking that candidate as a top choice are counted instead for the candidate ranked next on that ballot.

- If these additional ballots push any candidates above the nomination threshold, then those candidates are selected as nominees. The process is repeated, with more candidates eliminated and their ballots redistributed until five candidates have been pushed above the number needed to advance.

(For those interested in reading more about the process of selecting nominees through the eyes of an expert on Oscar voting and history, check out Steve Pond’s article from the last Oscar season at The Wrap. This week, we will know the outcome of this selection process, and speculation about the eventual winners will begin in earnest. Here at OscarVotes123.com, we will be paying close attention to the other aspect of the Oscars’ “preferential voting” system – the use of instant runoff voting to determine the winner of the Best Picture category. Stay tuned!

Welcome back!

With nominations for the 83rd Academy Awards due to be announced on Tuesday, January 25, we at OscarVotes123 welcome you back to our annual coverage of the Oscars!

This blog is dedicated to examining and explaining the voting methods used by the Academy to nominate candidates and select winners. While Academy officials are famously secretive about the selection process, the methods they use are no secret and, in fact, are used in elections by governments and organizations around the world. Join us in the coming days as we pull back the curtain on Oscar voting, explaining the selection process behind the biggest awards in show business.