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  • Awards & Nominations

Pleasing All of the People Some of the Time – Oscar Voting for Dummies…

You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

John Lydgate

The above quote is frequently attributed to Abraham Lincoln (though Lincoln actually substituted ‘fool’ for ‘please’, in a bit of West Wing-style trivia for you, say what you will of “Honest Abe”), and applies to many things in life. Since this is a movie blog, and the Oscars changed the practice of counting votes for the Best Picture, today it applies to the practice of counting votes for the Best Picture. The Academy used to adopt both approaches – favouring all in the selection of nominees, but only some (as little as 18%) in its selection of winners – but now it looks like the academy is shifting towards adjusting the selection of winners to allow all (well, a lot more than before) members some say in the matter.

Anyway, we’ve put together a little maths guide to how the new system will work in practice.

If I have three Oscar statuettes, and Meryll Streep moves in with her thirteen Oscar statuettes, how inferior am I going to feel?

If I have one Oscar statuettes, and Jack Nicholson stands next to mewith his three Oscar statuettes, how inferior am I going to feel?

The news that the Best Picture category would expand to ten films was met with a wide variety of reactions. Even then, some smart mathmaticians or number nuts were already looking at the figures involved in such a radical change. They were not happy – and justifiably so.

Since the Academy shifted from ten nominees to five nominees way back in 1945, they have you used a simple plurality voting model. In layman’s terms, one person gets one vote. The film with the most number of votes takes home the prize. Doesn’t matter if a film got over 90% or less than 50%, if the film got more votes than any other, it won the prize. Logic would tell you that in such a system, a film would (possibly) only need to take 21% in a really-tight five-horse race to win. According to Bruce Davis, the executive director, it could in actuality be as low as 18%.

To make this abosultely clear, it doesn’t matter if 82% of the Academy dispise the movie, if it gets more votes than any other, it is the Best Picture. Even though there’s rarely really a five-horse race in the category, it’s kinda depressing if you think that any of the movies to receive the honour may only have received the thumbs up from a fifth of the membership. Well, either that or it helps explain strange victories like Shakespeare in Love. Maybe it only got 22% of the votes! Anyway, this system was deemed a necessary evil and it worked for over half-a-century. If your film got picked, great. If it didn’t, tough. For example, this is how it would work in a fictional ten-picture race:

Plurality Voting Results:

As Good as It Gets: 262

Blade Runner: 923

Brazil: 339

Citizen Kane: 1137

The Departed: 256

Die Hard: 187

The Godfather: 1052

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: 885

Little Miss Sunshine: 123

The Usual Suspects: 836

Citizen Kane wins in the above example, despite having less than a quarter of all the votes cast.

This is similar to the electoral system that they use over in the UK or in India, so it clearly has its proponents. The most obvious benefit of the system is that you don’t have any false compromises, which you might see in tight races using the new system. If a film wins, you know somebody thought it was the best film of the year (or of the five presented, at any rate). It’s also simple. You can explain it in a sentence: the guy with the most votes wins.

The problem is that when you double the nominees, you half the number of votes required to win. If people are uncomfortable with a winner holding only 18% of the vote, what if we knew a winner could have won as little as 9% of the vote? I think the Academy was right to make the change, regardless of the outcome (which will be interesting and may take years to fully evaluate.

The new system is single transferable vote. This is slightly more complicated than plurality, and may involve some sums. You have been warned. Alright. The goal here isn’t to pick the film with the most devoted fans, but a film that the majority of people will be happy with. So you don’t have riots and stuff. Unless those devoted fans who get passed over are really ticked off. Here’s the catch, though: single transferable vote is generally used in elections where there is more than one winner. Constituencies in Ireland where there is more than one seat up for grabs, for example. This is just a practical thing, as the more winners you have the more chance you have of appeasing the majority of people.

Anyway, here we go. Best illustrate through example.

There are 6,000 members of the Academy. Let’s assume that they all vote.

We take that number and we divide it by the number of prizes (one) plus one. So we divide it by two…

6000/2 = 3000

We add one to that number…

3000 + 1 = 3001

… and that’s our quota. 3,001 votes.

Once we’ve done that, we count the votes we have received. If any movie has more than 3001 votes, it wins. If it doesn’t, we move on to the next stage.

We count out the number of votes for each film. I’m going to use a fictional ten horse race by way of example:

Single Transferable Vote Results – Round #1:

As Good as It Gets: 262

Blade Runner: 923

Brazil: 339

Citizen Kane: 1137

The Departed: 256

Die Hard: 187

The Godfather: 1052

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: 885

Little Miss Sunshine: 123

The Usual Suspects: 836

That means that everybody voted. And, for simplicity, we’ll assume that everybody has their preferences listed (i.e. nobody just put a tick beside their first preference and sent the form back – they put the numbers in order).

Alright, at this stage of the night, Citizen Kane would have been the winner under the old system, nevermind that The Godfather and The Usual Suspects and The Departed would have split the vote for crime movies. Anyway, no movie is anywhere near 3,001 – so strap yourselves in. It’s going to be a long night. We start be eliminating the weakest competitor and allocating their second prefences.

So the people who voted for Little Miss Sunshine will have their second preferences counted. The number of transfers will be listed beside each title (along with the new total).

Single Transferable Vote Results – Round #2:

As Good as It Gets: 262 +87 = 349

Blade Runner: 923

Brazil: 339

Citizen Kane: 1137 +12 = 1149

The Departed: 256

Die Hard: 187

The Godfather: 1052 +4 = 1056

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: 885 +2 = 887

Little Miss Sunshine: 123

The Usual Suspects: 836 + 18 = 854

Still not much closer, so we eliminate the second-least popular choice and reallocate its votes. Any votes that would have gone to Little Miss Sunshine as the second preference are moved on to their third preference.

Single Transferable Vote Results – Round #3:

As Good as It Gets: 349 +12 = 361

Blade Runner: 923 +23 = 946

Brazil: 339

Citizen Kane: 1149

The Departed: 256 +21 = 276

Die Hard: 187

The Godfather: 1056 +27 = 1083

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: 887 +48 = 935

Little Miss Sunshine: 123

The Usual Suspects: 854 + 56 = 910

Alright, we’re nowhere closer. Time to cull the next lowest. Not that the transfers that The Departed has just received from Die Hard are now transferred again. So any voters who selected Die Hard as their first choice and The Departed as their second choice are now having their votes transferred to their third choice.

Single Transferable Vote Results – Round #4:

As Good as It Gets: 361 +4 =365

Blade Runner: 946 +122 =1068

Brazil: 339 +4 =343

Citizen Kane: 1149 +9 =1158

The Departed: 276

Die Hard: 187

The Godfather: 1083 +76 =1159

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: 935 +29 = 964

Little Miss Sunshine: 123

The Usual Suspects: 910 +33 = 943

Alright, now this what we’re talking about! Things are really starting to shake up. The Godfather has just overtaken Citizen Kane and The Usual Suspects is gaining on The Good, the Bad & The Ugly. Depending on which of the movies end up being eliminated first, we’ll see greater and smaller numbers of votes migrating across. So if The Usual Suspects were to be eliminated now, we’d probably see more preferences for the similar crime movie The Godfather than Citizen Kane, whereas if The Good, The Bad & The Ugly were carved up we’d likely see more votes for the classic Citizen Kane. Anyway, time to eliminate another movie:

Single Transferable Vote Results – Round #5:

As Good as It Gets: 365

Blade Runner: 1068 +36 = 1104

Brazil: 343 +53 = 396

Citizen Kane: 1158 +47 = 1205

The Departed: 276

Die Hard: 187

The Godfather: 1159 +45 = 1204

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: 964 +42 = 1006

Little Miss Sunshine: 123

The Usual Suspects: 943 +142 = 1085

Brazil’s gone…

Single Transferable Vote Results – Round #6:

As Good as It Gets: 365

Blade Runner: 1104 +211 =1315

Brazil: 396

Citizen Kane: 1205 +18 =1223

The Departed: 276

Die Hard: 187

The Godfather: 1204 +21 =1225

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: 1006 +53 = 1059

Little Miss Sunshine: 123

The Usual Suspects: 1095 +93 =1178

And we’re nearing the end. In a surprise twist, it looks like Blade Runner has taken the lead, despite only being the third-most popular title originally. We’re going to be eliminating our first really big contender now, and we’re entering the final stages of the competition…

Single Transferable Vote Results – Round #7:

As Good as It Gets: 365

Blade Runner: 1315 +189 =1504

Brazil: 396

Citizen Kane: 1223 +612 =1835

The Departed: 276

Die Hard: 187

The Godfather: 1225 +162 =1387

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: 1059

Little Miss Sunshine: 123

The Usual Suspects: 1178 +96 =1274

It’s still quite tight, but it looks like The Usual Suspects is to be cut. This will send all manner of crime/noir preferences to The Godfather.

Single Transferable Vote Results – Round #8:

As Good as It Gets: 365

Blade Runner: 1504 +70 =1574

Brazil: 396

Citizen Kane: 1835 + 281 =2116

The Departed: 276

Die Hard: 187

The Godfather: 1387 +923 =2310

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: 1059

Little Miss Sunshine: 123

The Usual Suspects: 1274

And the final elimination…

Single Transferable Vote Results – Round #9:

As Good as It Gets: 365

Blade Runner: 1574

Brazil: 396

Citizen Kane: 2116 +471 =2587

The Departed: 276

Die Hard: 187

The Godfather: 2310 +1103 =3413

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: 1059

Little Miss Sunshine: 123

The Usual Suspects: 1274

And the first past the quota is The Godfather, even though it only had the second-largest number of first-preferences. You should keep in mind while looking at the above example that not everyone will transfer their votes all the way along, which makes things even more complex and confusing. To any Americans reading, your system makes almost as little sense to us.

Complicated? Yep. It’s been suggested that voters up in Canada rejected electoral amendments putting forward these voting models for their parliamentary election precisely because it is so hard to understand. You could argue that – because Pricewaterhouse Coopers keep the tally secret – the complicated process isn’t really anything film buffs need to worry about. I just included it in case you were curious.

Anyway, the benefits of the system are that you will more than likely reach a conclusion that most people are happy about. The downside is that you could reach a conclusion that nobody is ecstatic about. For example if you have two big films vying for the award and heavily polarising their fanbases, it’s likely that a neutral third film will be selected (as neither base will transfer to their rival). In the grand scheme of things, I’m not sure if this will mean more or less truly surprising announcements.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Hmm… it’s not often I get to combine my love of political systems and my love of voting… Hopefully it won’t happen again for a while.

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