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Choice Voting on the Red Carpet

by Forrest Barnum // Published June 25, 2009
Though red-carpet glamor is hardly a typical subject of FairVote's work, I'm happy to provide an exception today.  Yesterday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shocked the cinemaphile world with its announcement that there will be 10 nominees for Best Picture in 2010, double the usual number. I'll leave the qualitative discussion of how this alters the characteristics of the eligible movies and the entertainment value of the ceremony in other, more qualified hands; instead, I'll focus on the process by which the nominees are chosen.

As a colleague of mine noted earlier this year, choice voting has been used to select Academy Award nominees since the 1930's. The Academy wants the nominees to reflect the views of as many Academy members as possible so that they feel well-represented  by their choices on Oscar night. Each of the five nominees has the strong support of nearly a fifth of Academy voters, collectively making nearly every Academy voters invested in the outcome.

The importance of using choice voting with ranked ballots can be illustrated by a quick thought experiments. Suppose the Academy used a winner-take-all method for nominees, with each voter having five votes. Oscar night would quickly lose some of its entertaining diversity, with one kind of acting or one sort of movie dominating each category.

Or suppose the Academy instead used a non-transferable ballot system, with each member casting only one vote, and the top five vote-getters becoming nominees. There are at least two ways such a "single non-transferable vote" system (which in fact is the system used in Afghanistan) could easily produce skewed results.

For the purposes exercise, let us presume that 10% of the voters suffer an unfortunate head injury which compels them to vote for last year's insipid Mike Myers vehicle The Love Guru. Considering the extent to which votes are likely to be divided among the plethora of other candidates, The Love Guru would have a good to excellent shot at becoming a nominee. Choice voting prevents this tragedy from happening; the voters in full command of their faculties will not rank Myers's comprehensive demonstration of lame bodily function humor, allowing better films to win as preferences are allocated in later rounds.

The other possible misfire would occur in a year when one film receives an overwhelming number of votes. Suppose The Love Guru was stacked up against Titanic, or Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, both of which were tipped to take the statue well before the nominations were announced. If one of these films received – for example -- 75% of the nomination votes in a plurality contest, it would be quite easy for an aesthetic tragedy to win a place in the sharply reduced vote pool (7% of the vote would ensure a place and 4% might be enough). Thus, choice voting serves as a safety, producing reasonable consensus outcomes in a massive field.

Once the nominees are chosen, however, the Academy likes surprises. The winner is determined by plurality vote. Right now, in a fractured field, the winner could have as little as just over 20% of the vote and actually have little support from nearly 80% of Academy voters. With the expansion to 10 nominees, the winner actually could have the support of barely 10% of Academy voters - about the same as it takes to get a nominee for best picture with the doubling of nominees and halving of the "victory threshold."

Yes, the Academy enjoys those surprises, but perhaps it's time  for it to adopt instant runoff voting for best picture. Academy voters certainly are already experienced at ranking candidates, and perhaps surprises due to the distortions of plurality voting are best for lesser categories than the best picture of the year. True, the Academy is not an institution that needs to be held to exacting democratic standards, but its example provides an excellent case study in support of the practicality and fairness of choice voting -- and could do so for instant runoff voting.

NB: The harsh view of The Love Guru contained in this post is mine alone, and has nothing whatever to do with FairVote's official position of neutrality in artistic matters.