Oscar Votes 123: How Oscar Nominees are Selected: Explaining choice voting

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!

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