A version of this blog first appeared at FairVote's www.oscarvotes123.com, where you can see a series of posts about the Oscar voting for nominations and for Best Picture.
Now that nominations for the 83rd Academy Awards have been announced, pundits and prognosticators are busy predicting Oscar winners. No category attracts more speculation than the coveted Best Picture award, with ten top nominated films, reflecting a full range of movie types due to the use of the choice voting method of proportional representation.
To help ensure that the winner truly reflects the preferences of Academy voters, the Best Picture Oscar is awarded by instant runoff voting. Instant runoff voting (IRV) comes with a handful of names: preferential voting in Australia (where it used for nearly all elections with one winner), ranked choice voting in some American cities using it and the alternative vote in the United Kingdom (where it will be subject of a national referendum this year) . The use of IRV for Best Picture earned a lot of attention last year, including coverage in a USA Today editorial and Vanity Fair.
Instant runoff voting again is drawing coverage. Famed numbers guru Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight.com and the New York Times, posted his fascinating analysis this week explaining the instant runoff process and showing what outcome of the race for the night's biggest award would be if the nation's critics were the Academy voters. It's highly recommended reading for those interested in a quantitatively grounded perspective on how the Best Picture contest might play out.
For those new to instant runoff voting, the system simulates a series of "instant runoffs" as they likely would happen if everyone were asked to vote again immediately after the elimination of the last-place finisher before each round of voting. More specifically:
1. Academy voters rank the nominated movies in order of preference on their ballot: first, second, third and so on.
2. First choices are counted as one vote. If any movie is ranked 1st on a majority of ballots, then that movie is declared the winner and the election is over. If not, then the counting process goes on.
3. The movie in last place -- meaning the one with the fewest number of first choice rankings -- is eliminated. Each of these ballots is counted instead for the movie ranked 2nd on that ballot (the first "alternative" vote).
4. The redistributed ballots are added to the totals of the remaining movies. If any movie has more than 50% of the ballots in play (the original 1st choices and the redistributed 2nd choices), then that movie wins the Oscar. If not, then the counting process continues.
5. The movie with the fewest number of votes is again eliminated. Each of the ballots from the eliminated movie are counted instead for the movie ranked next on that ballot. If the movie ranked next has been eliminated, then the ballot counts for the movie ranked 3rd, and so forth.
6. This process of eliminating movies and redistributing ballots continues until one movie wins by securing more than 50% of the ballots in play -- e.g, a majority of the final round vote.
Thanks to instant runoff voting, the winner that emerges will more accurately represent the preferences of Academy voters than a simplistic "vote for one and ignore the other nine" plurality voting system.
There's of course no "perfect" voting system, but IRV is a terrific way to handle more than two choices - both because no Oscar voter is going to be able to "trick" the system with insincere voting and because it upholds majority rule. To win an IRV election, a candidate must have support that is both broad and deep: the film must attract strong first-choice support from its backers while picking up support from supporters of other films who consider it a worthy 2nd or 3rd choice. In the end, the film that is the most strongly and widely liked by Academy voters will be crowned Best Picture.
Because IRV is new to many people, some can misunderstand its impact. For example, some Oscar observers are suggesting that only agreeable, broadly-liked pictures can now win because they don't understand how important it is to have a strong first choice vote as well as appeal as an alternative choice. Others think that voters should try to outsmart the system by only voting for one film or perhaps changing the order of their choices, not realizing that a lower-ranked choice never counts against your top-ranked choice and that it would be foolhardy not to rank movies in your true order of choice.
In last year's Oscars, The Hurt Locker was an upset winner over Avatar, and some observers suggested that IRV must have been the reason. But the fact is that The Hurt Locker's director Kathryn Bigelow also won the Oscar for Best Director in a plurality vote, clearly not needing IRV to win. The Best Picture outcome last year simply meant that in a one-on-one race between the The Hurt Locker and Avatar, it's highly likely that The Hurt Locker would have won -- e.g., it would have been ranked ahead of Avatar on more ballots. That's an obviously sensible standard to use when picking Best Picture -- and, for that matter, our presidents, governors, mayors and other top political leaders.
Instant runoff voting already has one test this year in the entertainment world: the Producers Guild of America used it in picking Best Picture. The King's Speech earned the PGA's top award, and perhaps should be considered the frontrunner after securing 12 Oscar nominations. But the movie won't win if it can't earn majority support against its top opponent, expected to The Social Network. We'll find out the winner on Oscar night.