Thousands are set to cast ballots this week on two important races: the Iowa caucus and the Oscars, both of which rely on ranked-choice voting systems that are commonly misunderstood.

When deciding who will win best picture at this year’s Academy Awards, voters are asking to list their favorite movies in order of preference. In Iowa for the Democrats, if your candidate doesn’t hit a threshold — usually 15% in the precinct — you’re then asking to pick another candidate with more votes.

Here, Variety breaks down why the two processes are alike.

When it happens

Iowa Caucus: Monday, Feb. 3.

Oscars: Voting closes on Tuesday, Feb. 4.

Number of voters

Iowa Caucus: About 172,000 people participated in the 2016 Democratic contest.

Oscars: Roughly 9,000 people are members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that decides the Oscars.

How to vote

Iowa Caucus: You must vote in person.

Oscars: You must fill out a paper or electronic ballot.

How the process works

Iowa Caucus: On the Democratic side, voters arrive on Monday night at more than 1,600 precincts throughout the state of Iowa. They cast their votes by standing in a spot in the room that correlates with their candidate of choice. If your candidate has at least 15 percent of the votes in the room, your vote is locked. If not, you’re asked to switch your vote to another candidate who is doing better.

Oscars: For 23 of the 24 races, the process is straightforward with voters selecting their favorites from best director, cinematographer and the acting categories. But best picture has worked differently since 2010, when the Academy expanded the race to include up to 10 films. In order to prevent a less popular movie from winning a fractured contest, the Oscars introduced a preferential ballot, meaning that voters rank the nominees from most favorite to least favorite.

How winners are determined

Iowa Caucus: For the first time, Iowa will release three different tallies from its Democratic caucus results. The initial vote will calculate how the candidates performed in the preliminary round. The second number will indicate what happens after the realignment vote, when the less popular candidates are eliminated. And finally, there will be the delegate totals, which is awarded based on the final votes (using a formula that looks at Democratic turnout by county from the 2018 gubernatorial race). The candidate who receives the most delegates is the winner of the Iowa caucus.

Oscars: Once all votes are counted in the best picture race, the least popular movie is eliminated. The ballots for that movie are then recirculated — with the No. 2 votes being counted and redistributed instead. This process is repeated until a single movie has received more than 50 percent of the vote.


Since the Oscars have gone to preferential ballots, there’s been criticism that the new system has resulted in the Academy awarding “safer films.” In general, pundits say the new math favors movies that are generally most liked, as opposed to movies that are divisive. As for the Iowa caucus, “it makes more votes count and the candidate who emerges from the process shows a strength in the party,” says Rob Richie, the president of FairVote, a nonpartisan organization.