The members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts don’t vote like most Americans. That’s not just because they’re voting for movies instead of politicians. The Academy uses a different voting system from most American elections to determine Oscar nominees and winners: ranked choice voting.
The Academy uses ranked choice voting in multi-seat elections (also known as single transferable vote) to determine the nominees for most major awards. Any movie that receives more than a sixth of the vote, for categories with five nominees, will be nominated. To determine the winner of an award, the Academy uses single-seat ranked choice voting (also known as instant runoff voting).
The movie that receives the fewest first choice rankings is eliminated. Ballots are then retabulated, with each ballot counting as a vote for each voter's highest ranked movie that has not been eliminated, and the process continues until a winner has been determined.
To illustrate why ranked choice voting is so important for the Oscars, imagine yourself as a voter in last year’s Academy Awards. You thought Django was the best movie of the year, but you also thought the two movies most likely to win were Argo and Lincoln, and you preferred Argo over Lincoln. Under a plurality voting system, you would be forced to choose between voting honestly for Django and potentially wasting your vote, or strategically voting for Argo so your preference would affect the outcome.
American voters are regularly forced to make such decisions at the ballot box. Fortunately, members of the Academy do not have to choose between honesty and strategy. Under the ranked choice voting system used to select the Best Picture, you could rank Django first, Argo second, and Lincoln third. If Django loses, your vote would default to Argo, so your preference would still have an impact.
Ranked choice voting makes the Oscars more fair and competitive. By ranking the movies in order of preference, voters don’t have to worry about splitting the vote or a possible “spoiler effect.” A movie with strong support from just a few voters will not defeat a movie that has a broader base of support among the entire academy.
Of course, the principles that make ranked choice voting such a great system for the Oscars apply equally (if nor more so) to politics. Ranked choice voting was used in 2013 for municipal or school board elections in Cambridge, Minneapolis, and St. Paul and at a national level in Australia.