Oscar Votes 123: IRV and the Oscars: How Best Picture is Chosen

Thursday, January 27, 2011

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.

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