Demystifing The New Oscar Voting System

By Scott Macaulay | March 1, 2010
Incomprehensible Conundrum Another incomprehensible conundrum in Best Picture nominee A Serious Man

FilmInFocus' Scott Macaulay enlists economist Justin Wolfers to untangle the complexities of the new Best Picture voting system at the Academy Awards.

Can this year’s new Oscar Best Picture voting system save our gridlocked American democracy? Or is it an unholy mess, one whose complexities one critic compared to cold fusion?

To dig deeper into the radical change made by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Scientists we turned to Justin Wolfers, associate professor of economics in the Business and Public Policy Department at the Wharton School. But before we get his take, let’s review the new system.

Along with the expansion of the Best Picture category to include ten nominated films, the Oscars this year have changed the way the votes for its top prize are calculated. Gone is the simple first-round “the most votes wins” model. In its place is a system where ballots are tabulated in a series of run-offs with the lowest scoring films being eliminated in each round until one film wins by getting more than 50% of the vote. And because the business of Oscar journalism is as big as the business of the Oscars themselves, a lot has been written about this new model — so much so that it’s hard to figure out whether it’s a good thing or not. The Los Angeles Times' Steven Zeitchik — the critic who first wrote that “attempting to understand the new system can sometimes feel a little like trying to divine the secrets of cold fusion” before, to be fair, he wrote that “the system is actually quite logical”  — explained it like this:

"Voters will be asked to rank their best-picture choices from 1 to 10 (though they are not required to complete the ballot in full). Then the academy will gather the ballots and separate them in piles according to voters' first choices. Each movie gets its own pile — the film that appears most frequently as a first-place choice will naturally have the largest stack, the movie with the next-most first-place votes will have the second-largest, and so forth. Then each stack is counted.

If one film has more than 50% of the votes on the first round (unlikely), it will be declared the winner. If it doesn't, the academy will take the shortest stack — the movie that got the fewest first-place votes — eliminate it from contention, remove its stack from the table and redistribute those voters' second choices to all the other stacks.

The tally then begins again: If a film now has passed 50% of the ballots (still pretty unlikely), it wins. If it doesn't, the auditors go to the smallest stack left, eliminate that movie, remove that stack, and go down those ballots to voters' next-highest choice (of a movie that remains in contention, of course), and redistribute the ballots across the piles once again. The process repeats until one stack ends up with a majority."

Okay, so there’s a logic here. But is the system fair and rational? Respectful of the films, voters and storied history of the Oscars? And does it have anything to say about the way we elect our officials in the U.S.? Here’s where Wolfers comes in. His research focuses on economics, macroeconomics and social policy, but he agreed to wear “a political scientist hat” to discuss this new voting system. Also, aside from his expertise with numbers and statistics, Wolfers is especially qualified here because of one other fact: he is a native Australian.

This year’s Oscar voting is, Wolfers says, “a fairly common election system. We call it the ‘exhaustive preferential’ system, or ‘instant runoff system’, and it’s the way we elect our parliament in Australia.”

Backing up, Wolfers gives me a quick lesson in the relation between elections and voting systems. “Political scientists and mathematicians have forever been engaged in the search for a perfect voting system,” he says. “[Economist] Kenneth Arrow won the Nobel Prize for his ‘Arrow Impossibility Theorem,’ in which he wrote down all the things that a good electoral system would do and then proved that there is no system that meets all of those criteria. So we are always choosing the least worst system.”

Economist Justin Wolfers

Economist Justin Wolfers

Continuing, he says, “The difficulty we have with voting systems is that there are few ways for voters to impress the intensity of their preferences. It’s a generic problem of voting. It’s the difference between voting and markets.”

Wolfers compares for me the benefits of the exhaustive preferential system by comparing it to our U.S. election system, which he calls “the first past the post” system. “In the U.S. system, there is one round, and whoever gets the most votes wins and we all go home.” The problem with this system, he says, is that “you have an incentive to not vote what you believe. Say you support Ralph Nader. Well, you think he is not going to get elected, so you vote a Republican or Democrat instead because that’s how you ‘make your vote count.’ In the ‘first past the post’ system, everyone identifies the two most likely top candidates and votes between them. It encourages strategic rather than sincere voting.”

In the instant runoff system, though, ballots are constantly being recirculated rather than tossed out, and this knowledge by the voter should influence him or her to vote his real preference. So, just to take an example from the past, say that in 1998 voters concluded that the top Best Picture candidates, the ones most preferred by their fellow voters, would be Titanic and As Good As It Gets. A voter preferring another nominee, such as L.A. Confidential, and who also hated Titanic was theoretically encouraged not to vote for L.A. Confidential but for the film most likely to compete against TitanicAs Good As It Gets. In this year’s system, however, because a voter can rank preference from top to bottom, he or she should not worry about a wasted vote. “The good thing about the instant runoff is that it provides strong incentives to vote sincerely,” says Wolfers. “It’s the least unfair system. It’s enfranchising. Think of the guy who votes for Ralph Nader. In the instant runoff, it comes down to two candidates and his preference still counts.”

In a world of hanging chads and razor-thin margins, the instant runoff system has one other significant benefit, says Wolfers: “There cannot be a loser who would be preferred by more than 50% of the people to the winner. The winner will always be preferred by at least 50% of people to any other movie.”

Because of these factors, Wolfers argues that lobbying will matter less this year. “In the ‘first past the post’ system, you have to choose between the top two candidates. You have to look around and figure out who has the biggest lobbying campaign, and think, okay, I’m going to vote for one of those two.”

If this year’s Oscar voting system is so great, then, does Wolfers think it should replace our current method of holding U.S. elections? “You’re asking me my opinion? I think it would be splendid. It would allow people to vote sincerely, and lobbying would matter less.”

Okay, but with the exhaustive preferential system having been compared to cold fusion, does Wolfers think Academy members will understand just how least-bad the voting system this year is? “They should,” he replies. “Voters in Australia understand it straight away. If you spend ten minutes thinking about it, it is very easy to get. Hopefully Academy members have those ten minutes.”

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