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Oscar ballots by the numbers

A guide to the Academy's preferential system

Some mysteries of the universe are eternal: Does God exist? What is the purpose of my life? And how does the Academy’s Oscar voting system work?

Since the third question is the most complicated, that’s the one we’ll start with.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences consists of 15 branches; voters nominate work in their own branch (directors nominate directors, editors nom editors, etc.). Everyone nominates best pic.

Nomination ballots will be mailed Dec. 28, and voters will receive a card with five blank spaces (in most categories) to fill in their top five choices.

OK, so far it’s easy, isn’t it? But now comes the hard part.

This year, the best-pic category will feature 10 blank spaces because of the expanded number of noms. Many voters will agonize over the order of their 10 choices. These voters mistakenly believe all 10 will count for something. In truth, only one of them will. And it may not be their first choice.


Of course you are.

PricewaterhouseCoopers executives Brad Oltmanns and Rick Rosas explained it to me, and I will try to pass it along to you. But a disclaimer: I went over this several times with Rosas and Oltmanns (who are smart, have a great sense of humor and, crucially, are patient). I’ve written about it before and I still don’t completely get it. So if the following seems confusing, don’t blame yourself. But it does kinda/sorta make sense.

Here’s a case study. The directors branch had 375 voting members (as of 2008). So the PWC mavens take the number of possible nominees in that category (five) and add one. That total, six, is divided into the 375, which yields the magic number of 63. In round one of nomination tallies, the PWC folks take all the directors’ ballots and count up voters’ first-place choices: Any contender who earns the magic number — 63 votes — automatically has enough for a nomination.

The PWC mavens then set aside the ballots of those members who voted for that director, never to look at the other choices, because that voter’s voice has been heard. (And it’s possible more than one director has achieved that magic number.)

Then the team goes to round two: They take the stack with the fewest number of votes, and look at the second choice, and redistribute the ballots among the stacks. However, if a voter picked a director who had already hit the magic number, they go to the voter’s next choice. For each round, they look to a voter’s next highest choice — second, third, fourth, fifth — so long as that director remains in the running and has not otherwise hit the magic number.

OK, you totally understand the nomination process, right? Good, because we will explain the final ballots, and then there will be a quiz (and, yes, I do take off points for misspellings and bad penmanship).

But before that happens, here are some facts for you to ponder.

  • The Academy is the only awards group that uses what’s called preferential voting, a system that Australia adopted as early as 1902. The Acad has been using it since 1936.

  • It’s designed to deal with elections in which there is more than one result (e.g., five director nominees rather than a single presidential winner).

  • This is not a “weighted ballot.” That system gives different points for different slots (10 points for first place, eight for second, etc.). That’s nice, but this isn’t that system.

  • It doesn’t help your candidate if you fill out only one line, or fill the same name/title in all five slots.

  • There are five categories that vote by committee: two short subjects, two docus and foreign-language.

OK, let’s move on to the final voting.

After the AMPAS nomination deadline (which will be Jan. 23), the PricewaterhouseCoopers experts assemble all the ballots. In most of the categories, it will be straightforward counting: The person with the most votes wins.

But for best pic, there are 10 noms. So the preferential system will be used again. And, you may ask, in a world that’s already complicated, why are they making things more difficult? Why not just go with the first-place vote? Excellent question. Here are the reasons: By using the preferential system here, PWC and the Acad avoid the possibility of a film winning with only 11% of the votes and avoid the possibility of a tie.

How is this so? Sorry, I’m not going to explain it. It’s too complicated and you’re asking too many questions. Trust me, it’s true.

OK, so the PWC pros form 10 piles for best pic, one for each film. They go through the first-place choices. And the film with the lowest number of first-place votes is eliminated. Then they take the nine remaining films, and go through the second-place choices. Again, the lowest vote-getter is eliminated. In all, they will do eight rounds of this.

At the end, the winning film will have 50% of the votes — plus one.

I was going to address the question of God and why we’re put on Earth, but we’ve run out of space. Maybe next week. Besides, who has time to worry about these things during awards season?

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