It may not be a state secret, but the system used to tabulate Oscar nomination ballots remains very much a mystery to the 4,600 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
“If you’re asking me how it works, I have a pretty good sense of it,” said Academy president Bob Rehme, who announced this year’s nominees with actress Mercedes Ruehl in a pre-dawn ceremony this morning. “If you want me to explain it, I can’t.”
Academy executive director Bruce Davis broke into convulsive laughter when told that Daily Variety was attempting to explain the process.
In a random poll of more than two dozen members of various AMPAS branches, only one respondent understood the manner by which his vote would contribute to the Oscar ballot. However, he also was unable to explain the subtleties of the process. The rest were either unaware of the method used or had an incorrect impression of how votes are tabulated.
“It’s not a weighted ballot, it’s preferential,” Rehme noted.
In a “weighted” system, members of a branch make five selections, with the first-place choice given a greater value than the second choice, which in turn is worth more than the third pick, and so on. The preferential method is more complex, and with its additional Academy riders, difficult even for the Price-Waterhouse accountants to describe.
Using the Academy’s directors branch as an example provides an insight into how voting translates into the 1993 ballot. The 292 director members of AMPAS, as with members of all branches, determine the five nominees from their craft. The nominating ballot allows for up to five nominees per member and clearly states that choices should be made in descending preferential order.
After the close of voting, the ballots are scrutinized by the Price-Waterhouse representatives. To determine the “quota”– the number necessary to secure a nomination — the eligible ballots are divided by one more than the number of positions on the ballot … in other words, six. In this hypothetical, the magic number becomes 49 (that’s the 292 director members, divided by six).
In the initial count, only first-place choices are considered. Any director who receives 49 or more first-place votes is on the ballot. It also determines subsequent scrutiny, because an individual must receive at least one first-place vote to stay in the counting. In the second pass, all voters whose first-place choice has secured a spot are discarded.
“The thinking here is that it’s a way to simulate face-to-face voting without actually having it,” said Price-Waterhouse’s Frank Johnson. “Once your voice has been heard, so to speak, you retire from discussion. In this case, the ballot is put aside. We then go to the remaining ballots and count second choices and in this way everyone has an opportunity to be heard,”
The magic number continues to be 49 and the procedure may continue for a third, fourth or fifth pass.
“Mathematically, it’s highly unlikely that one’s fourth or fifth choice will be counted,” Davis said. “One of the strengths of this system is that it has a series of checks and balances, which ensure that a voter’s lower-ranked choice cannot knock out his top choice.”
Johnson explained that, at least theoretically, in this preferential ballot a strong minority candidate or film has a better chance of representation among the nominees.
Another check kicks in when a nominee receives more than 20% of the quota from first-place votes. A system had to be instituted to keep from discarding all of those ballots, which would skew the count on the remaining potential slate. The proportion over 20% is then calculated to a percentage that reflects the required quota. So, if Clint Eastwood were to receive 75 top choices — 50% above the necessary level — the individual votes would be revalued to 0.7 and the second-place votes, which would have otherwise not been counted, are given a value of 0.3.
“It’s quite complicated but my sense is that it is fair,” Davis said.
Though neither Davis nor Johnson could pinpoint the exact date when this methodology was instituted, they recall that it was implemented within the first five years of Price-Waterhouse’s involvement back in 1935.
The accounting firm was asked to come up with a voting system that addressed concerns of equitable representation. Davis said to the best of his knowledge it has not been changed one iota, both because it works and because board members’ eyes glaze over when its intricacies are explained.
“I’ve been told that changes in the way votes are counted have been discussed from time to time,” Johnson said. “I can assure you that if a new system comes into play, it will be a lot easier for us to manage.”