No dangling chads, old-fashioned all-paper process picks Oscar nominees

Canadian Press // Published January 18, 2008 in Canadian Press
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - Dangling chads will never stand in the way of the Academy Awards.

Oscar nominees have been calculated using the same low-tech, all-paper process the film academy has relied on for years.

They call it the "preferential voting system," and it's used in municipal elections all over the country, said Bruce Davis, executive director of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Democrats used a version of the vote-counting method at the recent Iowa caucuses, he said.

Developed by a British mathematician in the late 1800s, the system - officially known as single transferable voting - is designed to allow for more than one winner while minimizing wasted votes and vote manipulation.

Front-runners wield little influence with this old-fashioned counting practice, which involves repeatedly redistributing votes until five winners are found - or in the case of the academy - five nominees in two dozen categories. (The nominations will be announced Tuesday.)

It's a fair process but you may have to just take everyone's word for it, because it's kind of complicated to explain.

Brad Oltmanns and Rick Rosas of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the firm responsible for the top-secret tabulation of Oscar ballots, spent two hours demonstrating the method for reporters recently at film academy headquarters.

"Some of you will say it should be used in New Hampshire" for the presidential primaries, Rosas quipped.

The academy adopted the vote-counting system in 1936. Despite massive advances in technology, the company still counts ballots the way it did then.

"It's not that we haven't heard of computers," but the all-paper system is unhackable, Davis said.

It starts with the official nominations ballot. This year's batch was mailed out Dec. 26. Academy members may only nominate those in their own branch. Actors vote for actors, for example, and directors for directors. Members are asked to list, in order, their five favourites from the past year.

The counting takes place in a secret, windowless location. Rosas, Oltmanns and a handful of others tally the ballots and determine a numerical standard or "magic number" - the minimum required to achieve a nomination. This number is based on the total ballots received divided by the number of winners - in this case, five nominees - plus one.

With their eye on the magic number, they divide the paper ballots into piles according to the first name listed on each one. Once a potential nominee reaches the magic number, that person or film is taken out of the running and those ballots are retired. A new magic number is calculated based on the remaining ballots. Any remaining ballot that lists the already-nominated name as its first choice is redistributed among the remaining candidates. The process is repeated until five nominees emerge.

It takes about a week to count the nearly 6,000 nominations ballots.

Calculating the winners is much simpler: whoever gets the most votes wins.