Why Voting in The Oscars (and in Politics) Is Broken, and How to Fix Both ‹ Literary Hub

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The 2021 Academy Awards ceremony was a big event in my house. A childhood friend of mine, Jasmila Žbanić, was up for an Oscar in the foreign film category. She was the director of Quo vadis, Aida?, a movie depicting the genocide the Serb army committed in July 1995 in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica. The movie was important and Oscar-worthy. But I knew that Jasmila’s chances depended not only on the quality of the film but also on how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences votes.

In 2009, the Academy introduced a new voting method, single transferable vote (STV), to the process of choosing the nominees for each of the 24 categories. The goal was to ensure that nominated films would have the broadest support possible and STV is designed to achieve precisely that.

First, the roughly 9,500 voting members of the Academy rank up to five movies in their category (after an initial winnowing to fifteen contenders). The exception is Best Picture, for which any member can submit a ranked list of five to ten films. Because people might not be submitting lists of the same movies, a selection of the final five (or five to ten in case of Best Picture) has to be made. This is where STV kicks in.

If a movie appears on top of enough of the ranked ballots, it is declared one of the nominees and taken off all the ballots. For a selection of five films, the quota to be cleared is a little less than seventeen percent, so a movie that appears on top of about seventeen percent of the ballots becomes a nominee.

But now comes the crucial step—if this movie has an excess number of first-place votes beyond the necessary, those votes are transferred proportionally to the candidates who appear in second place on all the ballots that had that movie ranked first. Those other movies’ original first-place count has now been boosted by the inherited votes. This might have caused another movie to clear the seventeen percent threshold and it become the second nominee, with its excess votes now transferred down the list.

The iterative tallying continues until five candidates are selected. (Here is a video explaining the process.) In what has become a pre-Oscars event unto itself, the nominees in each category are then announced to the world.

If you’ve heard of ranked choice voting (RCV), STV might seem familiar. And it should—if only one candidate is to be elected, STV reduces to RCV. Further, if no candidate clears the quota at any stage of the STV process, RCV’s elimination algorithm takes over until someone does.

The notable feature of STV (and RCV) is the transfer of votes down the ballots, the end result being that the final selections represent consensus choices that take voters’ view beyond just the top choice into account. It is a mathematically sophisticated way to capture the “will of the people” and increase the diversity of the nominees, as corroborated by this year’s list of Best Picture contenders with films like The Zone of InterestPoor Things, and American Fiction alongside behemoths like BarbieOppenheimer, and Killers of the Flower Moon.

STV is an excellent voting method. It nominates movies in proportion to the Academy voters’ support for them, which sounds fair—and it is. The lower bar that needs to be cleared for getting elected leads to wider participation and greater diversity. Winning big is no longer the objective, so that it suffices for a movie to appeal to a slice of the Academy voters in a niche way, leading to a more representative slate being elected. Every voter can feel like their vote matters and is not wasted.

But what happens in the final stage of Academy voting? In the Best Picture category, the Academy uses RCV to crown the Oscar winner. This is good, since if we must elect just one winner, then RCV is the way to go—it captures the majority consensus as best as possible.

In addition to better reflecting the preferences of the voters and fostering political diversity, such districts would essentially end gerrymandering, encourage coalition-building, curb negative campaigning, and help terminate the Democrat-Republican duopoly.

It’s certainly better than the old method, plurality or winner-take-all, where a voter simply selects their favorite candidate instead of ranking them. With ten nominees, a film could win the plurality contest with barely over ten percent of the vote. And there could be vote-splitting, spoilers, and lots of wasted votes.

(Other awards shows use a generalization of winner-take-all for their entire process. Just like winner-take-all is just about the worst election method, so is this variant. In addition to all the usual problems of winner-take-all, a small but dedicated group of voters can bloc vote to force an entire slate of winners of their choosing. This is why awards shows are often dominated by a handful of candidates, as was the case recently with Succession and its twenty-seven Emmy nominations.)

And what about the other categories? Shockingly and inexplicably, the winner in all categories other than Best Picture is chosen using winner-take-all! Academy, you were doing so well! Why are you not using RCV for everything?!

All the benefits of STV and RCV as implemented in the Oscars would map over to the political arena. To maximize the power of STV, our current single-winner districts (state and congressional) should be replaced with larger ones that elect multiple candidates.

In addition to better reflecting the preferences of the voters and fostering political diversity, such districts would essentially end gerrymandering, encourage coalition-building, curb negative campaigning, and help terminate the Democrat-Republican duopoly. And for races where only a single winner is possible, like those for mayors, governors, and the U.S. President, RCV should be used. If elections were run this way, our democracy would much better reflect the variety of opinions and political preferences of its citizens.

Jasmila’s movie lost. The winner for Best International Feature Film in 2021 was Another Round, a pleasant Danish feature about midlife crisis and drinking. But it was nothing we hadn’t seen before, a low-stakes charmer, exactly the kind of a movie that would make enough academy voters feel warm and fuzzy enough to put it down as their favorite.

For all we know, the movie could have won with just over twenty percent of the votes. Had Foreign Film used RCV the outcome could have been different for Quo vadis, Aida? In any case, the result would have more fully reflected the academy voters’ true preference. As usual with winner-take-all, we will never know.

Making Democracy Count: How Mathematics Improves Voting, Electoral Maps, and Representation by Ismar Volić is available via Princeton University Press.

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