Explaining Moonlight's Surprise Oscar Win

Posted by Rob Richie on February 27, 2017

Last night, the steadfast viewers seeing the Oscars telecast to the end experienced a shocking moment: "La La Land" was wrongly read as the Best Picture winner, only to soon be corrected with the actual winner, Moonlight. The error was much like the infamous headline that "Dewey defeats Truman" in the 1948 presidential election -- that is, an error in reporting due to using the wrong envelope.

But what we really can productively learn relates to the virtues of the ranked choice voting ("instant runoff") system used by the Academy since 2009 to elect Best Picture. Given the results of the Best Director pick, which is decided by plurality, it's a reasonable guess that La La Land had the most first choices in the Best Picture race. As the ranked choice voting tally played out, with last-place finishers eliminated and their ballots added to the totals of their next ranked choice, the final two movies were likely La La Land and Moonlight. If that's the case, then the result means that Moonlight was preferred by Academy voters when matched head-to-head against La La Land.

There's a lesson for this in how we pick our leaders in real elections in races with more than two candidates -- from the Republican presidential primaries to several key Senate races. I blogged about it at the Huffington Post last week.

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