Ranked Ballots at the Oscars

Did you know that when the Oscar winners are announced this coming Sunday, ranked ballots will have played a decisive role in deciding who wins?

In fact, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences uses ranked ballots in two ways.

First, it uses them in the nominating process, and has done so since the 1930s. Voters in each of the 24 categories receive a ballot listing all the candidates who have been submitted for consideration.

Each category award is voted on by their peers (actors vote for best actor, directors for best director, etc). Voters are allowed to ranked up to 5 choices in order of preference. Once the voting is done, all the ballots are counted and the candidate with the fewest first preferences is dropped from contention. The ballots for that dropped candidate are then re-allocated to other candidates according to those ballots’ next highest preference and all the votes are tallied a second time. This counting continues in rounds until only the 5 most popular choices remain. It is these 5 candidates who become the nominees that you see on television.

The second way that the Academy uses ranked ballots is to select the Best Picture. For many years, only the nominations were determined by ranked ballot -- as described above -- while a first-past-the-post system was used to select the winner from among the nominees. However, in 2009, the Academy changed both the number of nominees for the Best Picture award (it went from 5 to up to 10) and the voting system (from first-past-the-post to ranked ballots). Now, in addition to the nominees for best picture being selected by ranked ballot, so too is the winner.

The Academy seems to have changed their method for selecting the Best Picture largely because they wanted to have more films get nominated. This was a laudable goal because it increased the number of films that received the exposure that a nomination can provide. But it also introduced a problem that will be familiar to Toronto residents, namely, that whenever there are a large number of candidates it becomes possible to "win" with only a small level of support. By switching to a ranked ballot, the Academy put in place a system that ensures that whichever film wins the Best Picture award, it will be the one with the most support.

So when you’re watching on Sunday evening, remember that if La La Land wins Best Picture, it will be because of a ranked ballot vote.