Tally ho

Eight things every voter (and fan) should know about Oscarís decidedly unique nomination process.

By Steve Pond, The Envelope
January 7, 2006

Attention Oscar voters:

You should have received your nominating ballot by now; if not, it'll be in your mailbox any day. You know how it works:

Look at the list of eligible films, rank your top five choices in all the categories nominated by whatever academy branch you belong to, select your five favorite films in the best picture slots, and send back the ballot.

But do you know what happens next?

Probably not. Most people don't. It can get a bit, well, to call it complicated might be an understatement.

The accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers don't count votes the way you might expect, assigning point values and then tallying everything up. Instead, they use a strange, arcane, delightfully convoluted process called the preferential system.

The system can affect voters' strategies, alter campaign plans and turn dark horses into favorites.

You don't have to understand it before you vote — most voters certainly don't — but if you really want to cast an informed ballot, you ought have at least a grasp of preferential voting.

"It's like St. Anselm's proof of the existence of God," says the academy's executive director, Bruce Davis. "I can hold it in my head for a little while, but it slips away."

Normally, Davis adds, the only people who ever really want to hear the explanation are "groups of accountants or people like that. When I hear our members talking about it, I can tell they don't always understand."

But they should, of course, because it's important. Here, then, is a primer on the preferential system — how it works (more or less), and what its implications are (sort of) in the Oscar races.

1. They don't need no stinkin' computers. First of all, the system for counting Oscar votes is rarely used — anywhere. Some Australian elections have been using a variant for almost 90 years, two decades longer than the Oscars. Ireland uses it for certain elections, as has the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for the past year and a half.

In political races, the system instantly breaks ties and avoids the need for runoff elections — hence its alternative name, "instant runoff voting". At the Oscars, though, it works somewhat differently.

The process starts with a small number of PricewaterhouseCoopers employees, working at one of those celebrated "undisclosed locations" (definitely not the firm's downtown headquarters, they tell us), sorting ballots into stacks based on each member's first choice.

Yes, it's done by hand rather than by computer program. That's because it's safer that way — hackers can't attack paper notes kept in a safe in a locked room accessed by a handful of people. Plus, the defiantly low-tech system works best when stacks of paper are physically moved.

"There are no shortcuts to it," says Rick Rosas, one of two PricewaterhouseCoopers managing partners who supervise the process. "We go through a lot of adding machine tape."

2. One-sixth plus one vote — that's all you need. Once all the ballots have been arranged by first-place vote, an initial count is held. If any film garners one vote more than one-sixth of the total number of voters, it automatically receives a nomination, and that stack of votes is removed from play.

At this point, we probably ought to pause to explain "one vote more than one-sixth," which seems counterintuitive. If, for instance, 5,000 academy members were eligible to vote for best picture, logic would seem to dictate that 1,000 votes — i.e., one-fifth of the total — would be enough to earn you one of the five nominations.

In practice though, 834 votes would be enough to guarantee a spot, because it's impossible for five more films to receive more votes than that. If you receive one-sixth of the total votes, you could conceivably be one of the top six vote-getters; one vote more than that and you've clinched a spot in the top five.

(In real life, or at least in this year's best picture race, there are 5,798 eligible voters. If they all voted — which they won't, but let's pretend — the magic number to secure a nomination would be 967.)

3. Somebody has to like you best, or you're out. The stacks of votes belonging to films that have clinched a nomination are immediately set aside. Then the remaining ballots are resorted into the existing piles based on the voters' second-choice films.

If the second choice has been eliminated (either because it has already been nominated or because it's the film with the smallest stack of ballots — see below), the counters move down the list of choices until they find a contender still in the running.

By the way, films that don't receive any first-place votes are eliminated immediately, regardless of how many second- or third-place votes they've received.

4. Trust your feelings, Luke. With each new round, the lowest vote-getters are eliminated and those ballots redistributed into other piles. The process is repeated until only five piles — and thus five nominees — remain. "It can take as many as 12, 13, 14 rounds," says Rosas. "The larger the category and the broader the range of possibilities, the more rounds we'll need."

Some ballots will end up discarded, but the majority will wind up in one of the five piles — and in most cases, the member will have cast a vote for one of his or her top three choices. (Read on for the explanation.)

But each member will have only voted for one film — that's a crucial difference between the preferential system and a weighted system, in which a voter's first choice would receive five points, his second choice four points, down to one point for a fifth choice.

"The other system leads to a certain amount of game playing," says Davis. "The preferential system allows you to absolutely follow your instincts and not censor your preferences."

5. Tiny little pictures deserve love too. Here's an example of how the system might work. Say a member's two favorite movies of 2005 were "Cinderella Man" and "A History of Violence." Ideally, he'd like to list those films 1-2 on his ballot — but maybe he's worried that the two will both be in the running for the fifth best picture nomination, and that by listing "Violence" second on his ballot, he'll give it points that could help it secure a nomination over the movie he prefers.

Under a normal weighted system, that might happen. Under the preferential system, his vote will go to "Cinderella Man" — and it'll move to "A History of Violence" only if "Cinderella Man" is either out of the running or it has already secured a nomination and no longer needs his help.

"If you think the best picture of the year was some tiny little picture released for two weeks that nobody else saw, you might not put it on your ballot because you think you're throwing away your vote," says Davis. "But the preferential system allows you to put that picture there. If nobody else in the academy votes for it, that's okay, because they'll go down to your second choice."

6. It's better to be loved by few than liked by many. Preferential voting, concedes Davis, makes "for some very complicated tallies." (We haven't even gotten into the scenario in which a film receives considerably more votes than it needs, in which case it secures a nomination and all of its ballots are redistributed into other piles, with the second or third or fourth choices counting as a fraction of a vote.)

In practical terms, the most important wrinkle is that rarely are a member's fourth or fifth choices counted. That means a film with passionate but limited support will often fare better than one that is appreciated but not adored by a larger group of voters: if 80% of voters list a film fourth on the ballot but only 10% of those fourth-places choices are counted, it's probably out of luck.

7. The system can even be used to mess with critics' lists. On Jan. 1, the Movie City News website had collected 130 different top 10 lists from critics and critics' groups around the country, and ranked the listed movies using a traditional weighted system.

Under the MCN system, the top five films were "Brokeback Mountain," "A History of Violence," "Capote," "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "The Squid and the Whale." "King Kong" is a close sixth, followed by "2046," "Crash," "Caché" and "Grizzly Man."

But if those same lists were viewed as if they were Oscar ballots, and each critic's list was tabulated using the preferential system, a different picture emerges. (To do this, we have to eliminate the critics that don't rank their top 10, reducing the number of voters to 107.)

The top three films are the same — and by securing a nomination in the third round of counting, "A History of Violence" cements its position as the overall critics' favorite.

But "The Squid and the Whale," which received two more first-place votes than "Good Night, and Good Luck" and picked up high scores as some of the artier competitors were eliminated, passes the George Clooney film to wind up with the fourth nomination.

And in the fifth slot, "Munich" jumps all the way from 12th in MCN's tabulation, courtesy of a steady stream of top-five votes on ballots whose top picks fall out of the running.

In doing so, it outlasts seven films that scored higher using the weighted system, including "Syriana" (eliminated at the end of the first round, with only a single number-one vote), "Grizzly Man" and "Crash" (both second-round casualties).

There's no telling if this will be good news for "Munich" once the real Oscar ballots are returned — academy voters' lists are not critics' lists, and an entirely different film could end up benefiting from the vagaries of the preferential system. Not that we'll ever really know, given PricewaterhouseCoopers' fabled ability to keep secrets.

8. Don't worry, it gets easier. Once nominations voting is over and you receive your final ballot, you can forget all about the preferential system until next December.

Final Oscar ballots are tallied the old-fashioned way: They count the votes in each category, and the movie with the biggest number takes home the Academy Award.

Until then, though, things are a little trickier. Just remember: It ain't over until the accountants say it's over.