The Oscars: How "Best Picture" Voting Works

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 8, 2010 3:40PM

"hard math" by misterbisson
This year, for the first time since 1944, there are ten Best Picture nominees. And that means the return of the "preferential voting" system, also known as Instant Runoff Voting (IRV).

For the other categories, which all feature five nominees or less, the tried and true "proportional representation" system will remain in place, i.e. whomever gets the most votes, wins. But the award for Best Picture has the potential to surprise us. Because the "top" vote getter may not actually win Best Picture. FairVote's blog explains why: in the category of Best Picture,

Voters rank their choices in order of preference (1, 2, 3, etc.). If no movie is the first choice of a majority [50% + 1], the film with the least first-choice votes is eliminated and the second choices of those voters are distributed. This process continues until we have a winner over the 50% mark, ensuring a majority consensus winner. In 1939, it gave us Gone with the Wind as the winner.

What that means is that a movie that gets the most "first choice" votes could lose out to a movie that gets more "second choice" and "third choice" votes. Basically, the prime consensus-builder wins Best Picture. So Avatar, for example, is not necessarily a shoe-in. Up in the Air, The Hurt Locker and (shudder) The Blind Side all have a fighting chance.

Incidentally, as FairVote points out, "IRV improves single-seat political elections when more than two candidates run--because voters can rank their choices on their ballots, third party and independent candidates are no longer potential 'spoilers,' and no one takes office with small pluralities, but are far more likely to be the consensus choice of the majority." In 2002, then-State Senator Barack Obama was the prime sponsor of pro-IRV legislation in Illinois. Could the Scott Cohen mess been averted with IRV?