Majority Rules: How Oscar Got It Right

avatar.jpgRegardless of which film takes home Best Picture on Sunday night, the Academy Awards finally got it right.

I don’t mean that the best movie of 2009 will have won, even if one only considers the 10 nominees. Rather, the Oscars have chosen a sound voting system — an instant-runoff election — that nearly guarantees that every ballot will help determine whether Avatar or The Hurt Locker nabs the prize.

The five-nominee-versus-10 debate is really a matter of preference, but I see no downside to 10 Best Picture slots. It mimics the classic “10 best” list; it delivered greater cinematic diversity; it creates more investment in the Oscars for audiences who loved The Blind Side or District 9 and haven’t heard of An Education or A Serious Man; and the relatively complicated voting/tabulation design has made the race a little more opaque and therefore interesting. (Oscar Votes 1-2-3 offers an excellent primer on instant-runoff elections — generally and in the context of the Best Picture Oscar race.)

The old system, in which voters chose one movie on their Best Picture ballots, was always problematic. Given divergent tastes, a five-nominee system in which the movie with the most votes wins will nearly always produce a victor that got less than a majority. In many if not most cases, it’s going to win with less than 40 percent of the vote.

By itself, that’s not a bad thing. But this method, by definition, doesn’t allow for comparative evaluations. In an extreme case, the outcome isn’t altered when the most popular movie among voters is also one of the most-hated among the majority.

Let’s say that a five-film Best Picture field this year would include Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, and Up in the Air. It’s possible (maybe even likely) that Avatar would capture the Oscar with a plurality in a one-member/one-choice system with a majority of voters thinking that The Hurt Locker is actually a better movie.

That result wouldn’t be a travesty; it’s arguably fair and just.

But look at the 2005 nominees: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Crash, Good Night, and Good Luck., and Munich. Did Crash even get 25 percent of the vote? This is a movie that is loathed by a great many people, and I’m guessing a majority of voters were in the “anything but Crash” camp. Yet it won. It’s not going out on a limb to say that was a travesty.

Using that voting system with 10 nominees would only exacerbate its problems. Theoretically, a movie with 10 percent of the vote plus one could win. A movie with less than 20 percent would commonly win.

Enter the preferential ballot, in which voters rank the nominees from one to 10. If no movie has a majority of first-choice votes, the nominee with the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and its votes are distributed to voters’ second choices. That process continues until one movie earns a majority.

(There is an unsavory alternative to this: a system that merely weights preference — 10 points for first choice, nine points for second, etc. But this is too easily manipulated by voters. Partisans of The Hurt Locker could simply rank Avatar last, and vice versa.)

Interestingly and somewhat paradoxically, only a perceived failure of instant-runoff balloting would differentiate it from the old way — and that would ironically be the last time the Academy uses it. If, by some miracle, Inglourious Basterds walks away with Best Picture, it will vindicate the preferential ballot as a distinct system whose increased nuance can lead to a different outcome. In that situation, it would be a given that the winner did not get the most first-place votes; it likely wouldn’t have gotten the second-most first-place votes, either. But it would show that Academy voters as a whole preferred Quentin Tarantino’s movie over the “front-runners.” The mechanics of this are complicated, but if Basterds is second or third on a ton of ballots initially given to the other seven also-rans, it has better than an abstract shot. (Don’t hold your breath, by the way.)

The beauty of the preferential-ballot/instant-runoff system for Best Picture is that it nearly guarantees that every ballot matters. Let’s assume a first-choice percentage distribution of 21-19-13-12-9-8-6-5-4-3. (These are educated estimates, but, yes, I pulled them out of my ass.) Under this system and using those numbers, even if all the votes from the laggards go to the front-runner, a winner wouldn’t be decided until the fifth-place finisher’s ballots are redistributed. Realistically, the third-place finisher will decide the contest.

(Ultimately, unless prognosticators have grossly misread this year’s contest, the only thing that will matter on each ballot is whether Avatar or The Hurt Locker is placed higher. Barring a huge hate factor for both movies — i.e., a massive number of Academy members ranking them near the bottom — that’s how it’s going to play out.)

hurt-locker.jpgI’m guessing that voters who selected The Blind Side (ninth place?), District 9 (eighth?),or Up (sixth?) as their first choices would lean toward Avatar, and that supporters of An Education (seventh?) and A Serious Man (10th?) would go for The Hurt Locker. I also think that Precious (fifth?) and Up in the Air (fourth?) voters would favor Avatar slightly.

And those votes would be significant in what is widely considered a two-movie contest in which both have relatively wide and fervent support. My original ass-pulled numbers have The Hurt Locker ahead of Avatar 21 percent to 19, but additionally ass-pulled redistributions push Avatar into the lead — 45 percent to 42 — prior to splitting up votes for the third-place finisher.

I have a bottle of wine riding on Avatar winning Best Picture on Sunday, but here’s the reality: The Best Picture Oscar will finally be decided by voters who selected Inglourious Basterds as their first choice. Their support for one of the final two will be overwhelming, and that’s why The Hurt Locker will win.

Thanks Jeff, this is the first complete analysis of the new voting system that I’ve read, at least applied to concrete examples.

So...what kind of wine are you buying?

Jamie: I haven’t decided on the wine yet. I’m thinking something Iraq-war- or IED-themed. Or maybe female-centric. Any ideas?

For clarity, I actually took the field against Hurt Locker. That’s practically the same as choosing Avatar, but one never knows what strange things can happen with Oscar voters.

I’m Kreativ! you’re Kreativ too!

Excellent analysis, which ended up proving to be right. Like Jamie, I haven’t seen the new process described as well as you’ve described it here. Kudos, even if I’m discovering this a couple weeks late.

Leave a comment