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Election Reform at the Oscars

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009


In June, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, also known as the folks that give out the Oscars, created a stir by switching the number of nominees for best picture from five to 10. Would the show get longer? Would the movies nominated suffer in quality? Would there be documentaries included? Those were some of the questions that Hollywood insiders were wondering.

Us election reformers had a different set of questions on our minds: How would the votes be counted? How was the winner going to be picked now that the field was going to be so much larger?

Michael Cieply at the New York Times has the answer, announced this week by the Academy:

The best picture will now be chosen by a preferential voting system, rather than the single-choice voting used in other categories. In a statement, Tom Sherak, recently named president of the academy, said preferential voting will help choose the best picture candidate “with the strongest support of a majority of our electorate.”

In the single-choice system, voters pick their film and the one with the most votes wins. Oscar voters will now be expected to rank their best picture choices, one through 10. Without such ranking, the wider field of nominees raised the possibility that a film would win top honors though it was preferred by only a small plurality of voters.

A preferential voting system is also known as Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), a system that has been pushed by our friends at FairVote and I think it’s fair to say Rob Ritchie, FairVote’s Executive Director, was pretty excited.

“It’s encouraging to see the Motion Picture Academy wisely adopt instant runoff voting,” said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a nonpartisan election reform organization that supports IRV. “It serves as another example of how IRV can not only improve how we pick our favorite movies, but how we can have more meaningful choices for leaders and representatives in our elections for public office.”

FairVote also reminds us that this isn’t the Academy’s first time using IRV, and they tell us a little bit about how IRV works:

Used by the Academy in Best Picture voting before 1945, which was the last time ten pictures were nominated, IRV is a system in which voters rank their preferences in order of choice. The nominee with the fewest votes is eliminated, and ballots cast for that film are moved to voter’s next choice among the remaining films. The process continues until one film has more than half the votes and is declared Best Picture of the Year.

For more about where and how IRV is used in election systems throughout the United States, read FairVote’s press release.

Photo via Media Decoder at the New York Times.

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