For Oscar Nominations, 'Choice' is Clear

by Paul Fidalgo // Published January 29, 2010
2009 oscar nominations

We here at FairVote are probably a little more interested in the Oscars than most think tanks in DC. Sure, we like movies as much as anyone else, but there's one aspect of the awards that particularly sparks our interest: the Academy's voting system!

The Academy recently expanded its nominees for Best Picture from five to ten, and in order to prevent one film from winning with only a tiny plurality of votes (say, 11%) while being opposed by the majority, they re-adopted a system they used up until the 1940s: Instant runoff voting! See why we're excited? So much so, that we've just started a fun blog project called Oscar Votes 1-2-3, where we take a look at the awards contest through the lens of IRV and how it will change the dynamics of the race.

But FairVote's stake in the Oscars doesn't end with the race for Best Picture. Because in order to dole out awards, first they need nominees. To do that, the Academy needed a system that accurately represents the tastes and constituencies of the membership, offering a slate of nominees that have a broad consensus as quality contenders. How do they do that? For most categories, they use FairVote's favorite form of proportional voting: Choice voting!

A few years ago, when all the nominees were capped at five, FairVote put out a handy little briefing about choice voting and the Oscars that explains it all very succinctly:

Each nominating ballot has five numbered slots for each category that the member is eligible to vote in. Although each member only gets one vote, they are entitled to choose up to five potential nominees, in order. In case their favorite nominee is eliminated, their vote counts toward their second choice. There is no need to make calculations about whether an achievement has a realistic chance or not, because voters can't waste their votes. Academy members can support an unlikely candidate, as their vote will count for their second choice if their first choice is eliminated.

Any potential nominee that is supported by 20% of the voters will get 1 of the 5 nominations (that's proportional representation). With more than 5,000 ballots expected to be returned to the Academy in the Best Picture category, the magic number of first-choice votes for a would-be nominee for Best Picture is a little more than 1000.

The nominations will be announced February 2 (oddly, the same day that Punxsutawney Phil will be checking out the scene...perhaps he's an Avatar fan), so when those names and titles flash across the screen, proclaiming the year's cinematic contenders, you'll know how they got there; through a fair, representative, and easy-to-grasp proportional system.