Oscar Votes 123: 2014

Friday, February 28, 2014

In Fractured Oscar Field, Ranked Choice Voting Elects the Real Best Picture

For decades, the Oscars have picked nominees for all major categories using the fair representation form of ranked choice voting (RCV), as reported at FairVote’s OscarVotes123 blog. Since 2009, when the Academy of Motion Pictures increased the number of Best Picture nominees to ten (it can now be between five and ten), it has also used RCV – sometimes called instant runoff voting or preferential voting – to select the Best Picture.

Analyzing Oscar voting is tricky, because the Academy doesn’t release actual vote totals. As a result, any investigation into how an Oscar election played out can only be based on the announced winners and anecdotal evidence of what voters were thinking.

This year, Entertainment Weekly made an attempt to quantify Oscar votes for Best Picture and the other major awards. Their methodology is ambiguous (“based on previous awards won and conversations with insiders and Academy members”), but it provides some hard numbers for examining the 2013 Oscar race. Assuming that real Oscar votes will be comparable to EW’s predictions, we can infer how the voting system may affect the outcome of the election.

EW’s projected first choice percentages for Best Picture reveal one obvious fact: it’s a good thing the Academy uses ranked choice voting. No movie is projected to receive more than 20% of first choices, and the difference between the frontrunners (Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, and American Hustle) and the pack is a mere few percentage points – well within the margin of error of this exercise.

Here are EW’s projected first choice numbers (these numbers are only available in the print version):

1st Choice Support
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
The Wolf of Wall Street
Captain Phillips

If Best Picture voting were conducted using a plurality system, as are most American elections, Gravity would be projected to win a narrow victory. But that result would not demonstrate that Gravity is Academy voters’ favorite movie. In theory, 81% of the Academy could hate Gravity, yet it could still win. Indeed, any of the top four movies could slip into the lead even if not broadly supported.

In fact, these numbers may look familiar to those who recall the notable 2002 French presidential race. In the first round of that election, the results were:

1st Round Support
Chirac (incumbent)
Le Pen (far-right)
Jospin (Prime Minister)
Bayrou (centrist)
Rest of Field                  

France has a runoff system rather than a plurality system, so all the candidates except Chirac and Le Pen were eliminated. Le Pen, who was only 3% behind in first choices, ultimately lost the runoff by a whopping margin of 82.2% to 17.8%.

The French runoff shows that a majority threshold in the first round matters for a fair outcome. It also illustrates the problems of a rigid two-round system where only two candidates advance, as the much stronger candidate (Jospin) failed to make the runoff and lost his opportunity to win a runoff.

Back to this year’s Best Picture election. Conventional wisdom says that Gravity and 12 Years a Slave have the most overall support, with American Hustle maintaining an outside shot at the award. The Wolf of Wall Street may be close in first choices, but few analysts consider it to have much broad support. Yet under a plurality rule, it could plausibly win an undeserved victory – just as Le Pen could have won in a plurality system in 2002.

Ranked choice voting is similar to a runoff system, but even better. When votes are counted, movies are eliminated one by one starting with the nominee with the fewest first choice rankings, and the eliminated movies’ votes then go to the next choice on each ballot.

In our hypothetical Oscar election, suppose that after the bottom six movies are eliminated, the field is narrowed to three. As is likely to occur, no movie has even 40% support at this stage. The count after six rounds of elimination might be:

7th Round Support
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle

American Hustle would then be eliminated, producing a final round runoff of:

Final Runoff
12 Years a Slave

We’ll never know how the voting really broke down. But we know with certainty that whatever movie wins, it will have majority support among Academy voters who ranked either it or its top competitor somewhere on their ballots.

Interestingly, the Academy has chosen not to use RCV for any awards other than Best Picture. Our hunch is that while RCV ensures a more representative result, it does not always make for exciting television. A plurality voting system increases the probability of apparent “upsets” by allowing relatively polarizing nominees to win, even if most voters didn’t think they were that good.

The non-Best Picture categories only have five nominees instead of nine, so the projected first choice share of the winners tends to be slightly larger. But notably, even races with clear frontrunners do not have a majority of first choice support. According to the Entertainment Weekly survey, for example, Jared Leto will win Best Supporting Actor (with a projected 38% of the vote, ahead of his closest competitor’s 20%) and Cate Blanchett will win Best Actress (projected 35% of the vote, 10% more than second-place Amy Adams). EW does not project any other category to be won with more than 30% of the vote, including the tight race between Gravity’s Alfonso Cuarón and 12 Years a Slave’s Steve McQueen for Best Director.

If there is a rare Best Picture/Best Director split this year, it might be because voters think more highly of Cuarón’s directorial work on Gravity than the movie itself, but it could just as easily be due to the difference in voting systems between the two awards. If Gravity has more first choice support but 12 Years a Slave is preferred when compared one-on-one by most of the electorate, 12 Years would likely win Best Picture while Gravity would deliver the Best Director Oscar to Cuarón.

Melena Ryzik of the New York Times unfortunately dismissed RCV this week as “complicated” and “unglamorous.” Meanwhile, Entertainment Weekly picked Gravity to win Best Picture purely based on its projected advantage in first choices, displaying a lack of understanding of the fact that the winner will really be determined by the final one-on-one runoff. Ranking choices and conducting a series of runoffs is, in fact, easy – and produces a much fairer outcome.

For more informed coverage of the voting system, we urge readers to peruse OscarVotes123 and the writings of The Wrap’s Steve Pond. Finally, keep in mind that a growing number of American jurisdictions are adopting ranked choice voting to ensure our elected officials are fairly elected. Those jurisdictions, as well as Best Picture voting, should serve as a model for other elections to emulate – from the entertainment industry to American’s highest political offices.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Vote like the Academy

Vote for the Oscars Best Motion Picture!

Did you know the Academy uses ranked choice voting to select best motion picture? Cast your ballot now - it's as easy as 1 2 3! Just rank your choices from favorite to least favorite movie! We want to hear what the public has to say! Results will be published on March 2nd, the same day as the real Academy Awards. 

Join the experiment - Click here

Friday, January 17, 2014

Fair Representation at the Oscars

In what is perhaps the most well-known use of multi-seat ranked choice voting in the United States, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its Oscar nominations Thursday morning. Although just about everyone is aware of the Oscar nominations, fewer people know that ranked choice voting is used to pick them, or what effect that has on the movies that get selected.

Ranked choice voting is a fair representation voting system, which means that a much wider variety of movies get nominated than if the voting were done by a winner-take-all method. For instance, if every academy voter just voted for their ten favorite movies and the ten movies with the most votes got nominated for Best Picture, it would be possible for the tenth favorite movie of 51% of the voters to make it in and the favorite movie of 49% of voters to get left out. The ranked choice voting system guarantees that as long as a movie is the top choice of about 10% of voters, it will be nominated.

It’s worth noting that the Best Picture nominations process actually uses a modified version of ranked choice voting, which we previously explained here. Basically, the modification gives extra importance to voters’ first choice rankings by eliminating all movies that don’t receive at least 1% of first choices and only transferring votes to voters’ second choices when a movie exceeds the threshold of election by at least 10%. There is also a variable number of nomination “seats,” as anywhere between 5 and 10 movies could be nominated depending on how many end up with more than 5% of the total vote after the two rounds of transfers. All categories other than Best Picture use a more traditional ranked choice voting system.

The Academy’s actual ballots are not publically released, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make some educated guesses about how the voting broke down.

The Best Picture award increasingly looks as if it will be a three movie race between Gravity, American Hustle, and 12 Years a Slave. All three were locks to be nominated, and likely received enough first choice rankings for a fraction of those ballots to be transferred to their voters’ second choices.

That left the following movies in contention, according to the experts at award-prediction site Gold Derby, which gave them odds above 0% to win Best Picture:

·         Captain Phillips
·         Nebraska
·         The Wolf of Wall Street
·         Her
·         Dallas Buyers Club
·         Saving Mr. Banks
·         Philomena
·         Blue Jasmine
·         August: Osage County
·         Fruitvale Station
·         The Butler

Captain Phillips was popular enough that it likely would have gotten in regardless of the voting system used, so we can leave that out of the analysis.

It’s not as easy to identify blocs of Oscars voters as it is to identify blocs of political voters. Oscar voters are not easily placed on a left-right spectrum. But there are some ways in which voters group themselves that likely translate into Oscar nominations. I’ll discuss some of them below, in terms of this year’s contenders:

Director Loyalty

Certain notable directors have, over the course of their illustrious careers, cultivated groups of followers that will be more likely to vote for their movies – in effect, partisans for a specific director. The 2013 movie that most benefited from this was The Wolf of Wall Street, which was divisive among critics but earned a nomination on the strength of director Martin Scorsese’s name. To a lesser extent, Her’s Best Picture nomination can be credited in part to the loyal following of director Spike Jonze.

A brand-name director is not always enough to secure a nomination, however. Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s latest production, failed to secure a Best Picture nomination, perhaps due to being released too early in the year to generate much Oscar buzz.


Some Hollywood guilds have a considerable degree of overlap with the Academy. When a guild is in support of a certain movie, it could single-handedly push that movie over the threshold of election. The Screen Actors Guild, for instance, has shown support for Dallas Buyers Club actors Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in its own awards. The SAG winners will not be announced until this Saturday, but McConaughey and Leto were nominated for Best Actor and Supporting Actor, respectively, and Dallas Buyers Club was one of five Best Picture nominees. It is plausible that the SAG’s support pushed Dallas Buyers Club, which seemed to be on the bubble for a nomination, over the edge.

Movie Genre

Some voters of the Academy seem to have preferences for specific types of movies. In particular, the nominations from the last few years suggest that there is a contingent of voters supporting smaller independent “art-house” films and foreign films. Under ranked choice voting, the art-house bloc won nominations for Winter’s Bone in 2010, The Tree of Life in 2011, Beasts of the Southern Wild in 2012, and Nebraska this year.

The foreign film-loving voting bloc has had less consistent success, and likely makes up a percentage of the Academy somewhat below the threshold of election. They voted in The Artist in 2011 (which would go on to win Best Picture) and Amour in 2012, but failed to get a nomination for another French movie, the 2013 Cannes Palm d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Color, for this year’s Oscars.


There is really only one national voting bloc of large enough to matter in Oscar nominations: the British. Though they only make up about 4.5% of the Academy with 250 members, that alone is almost all the votes necessary to get a movie past minimum 5% threshold for nomination.

Those voters helped push The King’s Speech to Best Picture glory in 2010, and this year they managed secure a nomination for the British film Philomena.

After Britain, the nationality with the next most Academy members is Canada, with just 57 according to the L.A. Times – not enough to have a significant effect on the nominations election.


There are three movies among the contenders that were generally likeable and might commonly be considered “Oscar-bait,” but were never able to inspire much passion: Saving Mr. Banks, August: Osage County, and The Butler. These movies might have been ranked in the bottom half of a significant number of voters’ ballots, but because of the proportional ranked choice voting system that was not enough for any of them to secure a nomination.

This is by design. The Academy would rather have a slate of Best Picture nominees such that everyone cares passionately about at least one of them, rather than two or three front-runners and then a handful of movies that no one thinks are the best.

Now, let’s revisit the list of contenders and categorize them by their “party” in the Academy. This is obviously an inexact science, as the groupings are largely speculative and there is presumably a great deal of overlap among these parties, but it gives some idea of how multi-member ranked choice voting works in practice for the Oscars.

The “legislature” of Best Picture Nominees now resembles what one would expect a body elected under a fair representation voting system without a strong party structure to look like. As a result of the use of ranked choice voting, a broad array of preferences and constituencies will be represented when the nominees are read at the closing of the Academy Awards.

A similar diversity can also be seen in other categories such as Best Director, where Nebraska director Alexander Payne (Art-House Party) and Martin Scorsese (Scorsese Party) beat out Captain Phillips Director Paul Greengrass for the final two nomination spots. Captain Phillips was popular enough to exceed the 5% minimum of votes to qualify for a Best Picture nomination, but did not produce enough first choice support to exceed the more challenging 16.7% threshold to win nominations for Greengrass or Tom Hanks for Best Actor.

This year’s Oscar nominations are an excellent case study for how fair representation voting systems, and ranked choice voting in particular, elect more representative candidates than winner-take-all systems and empower all voters to help elect a candidate of their choice.

When the Oscar winners are finally announced on March 2, we will further examine how ranked choice voting for single-winner elections elects the candidate with the greatest degree of both strong and broad support.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Vote like the Academy

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.