The 88th Academy Awards came to a close last night after an evening of celebrations, star-studded performances, and surprises. Mark Rylance won Best Supporting Actor for his role as a soviet spy in Bridge of Spies, surprising many who favoredSylvester Stallone’s reprisal of aging boxer Rocky Balboa. Lady Gaga delivered a moving rendition of “Til It Happens to You,” about sexual assault on college campuses, but ultimately lost the Best Original Song award to Sam Smith’s “Writing on the Wall.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night came from the only category using ranked choice voting to crown a winner. Spotlight, a news drama detailing the uncovery of sex abuse among catholic priests, defeated heavily favored The Revenant to win Best Picture. To choose Best Picture, Academy voters ranked all eight nominees in order of choice, knowing that if their top choice had no chance of winning, their vote would be transferred to the next choice. Using ranked choice voting (RCV), especially when there are so many nominees, is the best way to select a film that has the broadest support among all voters. Spotlight may not have been the most talked-about film or the most divisive film, but it did earn broad enough support, likely in second or third choices, to clinch the victory. This broad base of support is framed nicely in a piece from Indiewire’s blog The Playlist, which argues that, while Spotlight may not have been everyone’s first choice for Best Picture, many diverse aspects of the film, including its screenplay, acting, message, and style resonated with the most Academy voters.
Unfortunately, the Academy does not release the full breakdown of votes from any category, including the ranked choice contest for Best Picture, so we will never know exactly how support consolidated around Spotlight. We can, however, look at the data collected from our own simulated ranked choice contests for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress. In all three categories, our polls correctly predicted the eventual winners on Sunday night.
Our ranked choice voting poll for Best Picture shows how RCV allows the movie with the broadest support to prevail. Spotlight earned more first choices than any other movie, but only by a single vote, coming out ahead of The Revenant 22-21 in the first round. This lead may seem incredibly narrow, but as other movies are eliminated and their supporters transferred to their next choices, the broad support for Spotlight among our voters becomes clearer. In the fifth round, The Big Short is eliminated and Spotlight wins with 50.58% of the vote, over runner-up The Martian 49.17%.
Ranked choice voting works for all different types of elections, not just public office. There has been a lot of dialog recently about changing the way the Academy votes, including some who have suggested weighting the votes of women and people of color to address the diversity disparity. However, one of the biggest advantages of using fair voting methods is that weighting votes is unnecessary, because every voter has a stronger voice in the process and every vote counts throughout the election.