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Instant Runoff Voting for Best Picture: What you need to know

Released February 2, 2011


Rob Richie, rr [at] fairvote.org, (301) 270-4616
Toby Rowe, jrowe [at] fairvote.org, (301) 270-4616

With nominations for the 2010 Academy Awards announced on January 25, Academy voters will soon begin sending in their final ballots for tabulation. Journalists covering the awards should be aware of the use of Instant Runoff Voting (also called “preferential voting”) to select the winner of the Best Picture category. 

FairVote’s Rob Richie comments that “Instant runoff voting upholds the goal of majority rule even when voters have a wide range of choices. When the Academy went to nominating ten films for best picture, it was a sensible change to also move to instant runoff voting.”

Already in use by governments and organizations around the world, IRV was used to select the Best Picture winner last year and will be used again this year. The system has already received prominent coverage by the New York Times’ Nate Silver in his fascinating post on the Times web site. FairVote’s OscarVotes123.com also provides focused analysis of the IRV voting process and is now conducting an online election in which visitors can vote using a preferential ballot similar to that used by Academy voters.

FairVote, a national nonprofit organization focused on election reform, has been involved in running and analyzing IRV elections for more than a decade. With this experience in mind, here are some key points to consider as voting for Best Picture gets underway:

The Process

The tabulation of votes in an IRV system is a simple process that follows these steps:

1. Voters rank candidates in order of preference on their ballot. Voters get only one vote and their ballots never count for more than one candidate at a time, but they have alternate votes in case their first choice fares poorly and is eliminated in the count

2. First choices are counted. If any candidate is ranked 1st on a majority of ballots, then that candidate is declared the winner and the election is over. If not, then the counting process goes on.

3. The candidate ranked 1st on the fewest number of ballots is eliminated. Each of these ballots is counted instead for the candidate ranked 2nd on that ballot.

4. The redistributed ballots are added to the totals of the remaining candidates. If any candidate has over 50% of the ballots in play (the original 1st choices and the redistributed 2nd choices), then that candidate is declared the winner. If not, then the counting process continues.

5. The remaining candidate ranked 1st on the fewest number of ballots is again eliminated. Each of these ballots is counted instead for the candidate ranked 2nd on that ballot. If the candidate ranked 2nd has been eliminated, then the ballot is counted for the candidate ranked 3rd, and so forth.

6. This process of eliminating candidates and redistributing ballots continues until one candidate secures over 50% of the ballots in play.

The Outcome

Thanks to the IRV system, the winner that emerges will more accurately represent the preferences of Academy voters than what might happen in a plurality voting election where only a voter’s first choice is counted. To win an IRV election, a candidate must have support that is both broad and deep: the candidate must generally attract strong first-choice support from its enthusiasts while continuing to pick up ballots 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 will be crowned Best Picture, reflecting the consensus of the academy.


OscarVotes123.com provides focused insight & analysis on the Oscar voting process and its implications for the awards. The site is currently hosting a demonstration election in which visitors use IRV to vote for Best Picture.
Instantrunoff.com provides an introduction to instant runoff voting and its use in elections
FairVote.org contains a wealth of background information on instant runoff voting.
Nate Silver, of the New York Times & FiveThirtyEight.com, contributes a pollster’s perspective on IRV and the race for Best Picture.

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