Oscar ballots made (sorta) easy

Guest Column

Attention, Academy voters! You have ballots in hand! They are due at PricewaterhouseCoopers this Saturday! Every vote counts!

But do you know exactly how every vote is counted?

In truth, most members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences have no understanding how the “preferential voting system” works; the method is so complicated that most execs at the Academy furrow their brows when asked to sum it up in layman’s terms.

But here goes.

The 5,803 voters this year each get a ballot to indicate five choices in a particular category.

OK, that was the easy part.

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~ Complete list of nominees
~ Vote for your picks with Variety’s Academy Tracker
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~ Oscar nominations by film
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~ How the voting process works
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~ Join the discussion about today’s nominations

In the initial round of counting votes, the PricewaterhouseCoopers team weighs only the first-place choices. Officials sort all the ballots into stacks, one stack for each name mentioned in the top slot on the ballots.

In the director race, for example, any person who receives at least 62 first-place votes would become an Oscar nominee. The number 62 is calculated by dividing the number of helmers in that particular AMPAS branch (372 director members this year) by the number six — i.e., the number of possible nominees (5) plus one.

But the number 62 only applies to the directors contest; other races have their own magic numbers. (There are 1,298 voters in the actors branch; divided by six, that’s 216 votes.)

We told you this was complicated.

A contender must receive at least one first-place vote to stay in the counting. That’s an Academy contribution to the preferential system, working on the supposition that if there is not a single voter who thinks this film was the best, then it probably wasn’t.

In the second pass, the Pricewaterhouse people ignore all ballots whose first-place choice has secured a spot. The thinking is that once your voice has been heard, you retire from the discussion.

The tally-ers then go to the smallest piles of the remaining ballots. They redistribute them onto larger piles, based on second-place choices (and perhaps, later on, selections three through five). This process of redistribution eventually results in five piles with the requisite number of ballots in them. The goal is to maximize everyone’s chances of making their choice count.

Academy exec director Bruce Davis and Pricewaterhouse honchos Greg Garrison and Rick Rosas are among the few people on earth who understand this whole process. But if you have questions, don’t call them, and definitely don’t call Daily Variety. Ask your accountant.

The AMPAS board of governors adopted the preferential voting system in 1936, after a recommendation by Price Waterhouse (as it was called then) in the hopes that every voter’s voice would be heard. The system is particularly effective for elections in which there will be more than one winner — e.g., the five Oscar nominees in a category — as opposed to elections when there is only one winner (i.e., a Presidential election).

The Academy has considered and rejected many other forms of balloting. They include the “weighted system,” which is used in the two national college football polls. (A lot of good it did them this season.)

In this system, voters pick five favorites and the first-place candidate gets 10 points, the second place gets eight points, etc. The downside: A voter may inadvertently help his fourth or fifth choice beat out his first choice — the two points that the voter had assigned to his fifth-place choice may be exactly the advantage needed to send that person or film to the top.

The Academy only used preferential balloting in the nominating process.

In the preferential balloting, under PricewaterhouseCoopers for more than 60 years, there are no computers, no hanging chads. And over the decades, there have been plenty of surprises, but no leaking of secrets. No candidate has ever demanded a recount.

Next week’s lesson: how the Iowa caucuses work. Believe me, it’s less complicated.

Timothy M. Gray is managing editor of Daily Variety.

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