An explanation of the nomination process

Nominations for the 81st Academy Awards, to be announced this morning, recognize a lot of hard work and creativity — some of which occurred behind the scenes when Acad voters filled out their nominating ballots.

There’s a lot of confusion about how the votes are counted, but when the process is explained, it seems to get even more confusing.

Under rules of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, each branch nominates its own category (sound people vote on sound, actors vote on actors, et al.). Everybody gets to vote for best pic.

Voting members get a ballot on which they can write down five choices, and most voters spend time mulling over their five choices, carefully and meticulously putting them in order.

These voters mistakenly believe all five will be counted. In truth, only one of them will.

And it may not be their first choice.

Amid all of today’s post-nomination analysis, with pundits second-guessing the choices and omissions, it’s easy to overlook the fact that most pundits — and most Academy voters — don’t understand how the process works.

And who can blame them? The Academy uses 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 best-picture nominees rather than a single presidential winner).

If you think the electoral college system is complicated, it’s nothing compared to this one.

Here’s an oversimplified explanation. So sit down, concentrate and take notes.

After the AMPAS deadline (which was Jan. 12 this year), the team at PricewaterhouseCoopers assembles all the ballots.

For example, there are 375 voting members in the directors branch. The accountants take that 375 number and divide it by six — i.e., the number of eventual nominees (five) plus one. The division yields the number 62 — and then you add one, so that’s 63. (There’s a reason for adding these ones, but don’t worry about it.)

The accountants then take all 375 director ballots and go through only the first choices, putting each helmer-contender into his/her own stack. When a contender hits 63 first-place votes, he has enough for a nomination.

Anyone who voted for this director gets his ballot set aside, and none of the voter’s other choices is tallied. The reason is to make sure that every voice is heard.

It’s possible, but not likely, that when the first round of voting concludes, there are five contenders who got 63 votes. If not, the PWC crew take the remaining ballots and go through people’s second choices, to see who gets enough votes in this round.

One caveat: A contender has to receive at least one first-place vote. The thinking is that if a person got zero first-place finishes, maybe he doesn’t deserve a nomination.

In theory, the accountants move on to third-place votes, then fourth, then fifth. But it’s probable that they will have enough nominees from the earlier rounds and thus won’t get to the bottom of the lists.

So, when Oscar pundits are doing their post-mortems today, be aware that there really aren’t Oscar “snubs.” It’s quite possible that some director received a vote from each and every voting member of the director’s branch. But if all of those votes were in the fourth or fifth slot, the person would not be nominated. So that helmer would be admired and honored — but would not be among the nominees.

The 63 tally only applies to the directors branch. In most categories with five nominees, the number of ballots returned is divided by six. So with cinematographers the magic number is 33 (197 voting members). With actors, it’s 204 (1,222 voting members).

And then, of course, there are categories that are voted on in a different way, such as foreign-language films and documentaries. But your head is probably already spinning. Pundits can just enjoy the nominations today — and those who are not nominated can be consoled that maybe every single person voted for you anyway.

(For more details on preferential voting, or “single transferable voting” as it’s sometimes called, check out the Jan. 14, 2004 article “Oscar ballots made (sorta) easy” or the Jan. 8, 2008, article “Explaining Oscar’s enigmatic ballot.”)

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