As even the most casual film buff knows by now, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded the field of nominees for Best Picture. This year ten films have been nominated for the Oscar, up from five in recent years. Nominees include Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, the Blind Side, and Up.
What I didn't realize until today is that to accommodate this expansion, the Academy also changed its voting process. Under the old system, members of the Academy voted for their favorite film, just like Americans vote for President (well, if you ignore that whole Electoral College thing). Each member got one vote, and the flick with the most votes won. Simple, but, if you think about it, problematic. In principle, a film that 21% of the members love and 79% despise could bring home the golden statuette. And with the expansion to 10 films, that minority could be as little as 11%.
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As Hendrik Hertzberg describes in this week's New Yorker, the new, improved system is instant run-off voting:
Members—there are around fifty-eight hundred of them—are being asked to rank their choices from one to ten. In the unlikely event that a picture gets an outright majority of first-choice votes, the counting's over. If not, the last-place finisher is dropped and its voters' second choices are distributed among the movies still in the running. If there's still no majority, the second-to-last-place finisher gets eliminated, and its voters' second (or third) choices are counted. And so on, until one of the nominees goes over fifty per cent.
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This scheme, known as preference voting or instant-runoff voting, doesn't necessarily get you the movie (or the candidate) with the most committed supporters, but it does get you a winner that a majority can at least countenance. It favors consensus.
I've long been a fan of instant runoff voting (IRV) in elections to public office. Why? Because it eliminates the downside of voting for a third-party candidate. In a race between D and R, you may worry that voting for third-party candidate I is "throwing your vote away." That worry disappears with IRV. You can give I your number one vote and either D or R your number 2 vote. If I loses in the first round, you'll be disappointed. But you won't have wasted your vote since your second-place vote now becomes operative.
Hertzberg speculates that the switch to IRV may affect the Oscar race:
(H)ere's why it may also favor "The Hurt Locker." A lot of people like "Avatar," obviously, but a lot don't—too cold, too formulaic, too computerized, too derivative. (Remember "Dances with Wolves"? "Jurassic Park"? Everything by Hayao Miyazaki?) "Avatar" is polarizing. So is James Cameron. He may have fattened the bank accounts of a sizable bloc of Academy members—some three thousand people drew "Avatar" paychecks—but that doesn't mean that they all long to recrown him king of the world. (As he has admitted, his people skills aren't the best.) These factors could push "Avatar" toward the bottom of many a ranked-choice ballot.
On the other hand, few people who have seen "The Hurt Locker"—a real Iraq War story, not a sci-fi allegory—actively dislike it, and many profoundly admire it. Its underlying ethos is that war is hell, but it does not demonize the soldiers it portrays, whose job is to defuse bombs, not drop them. Even Republicans (and there are a few in Hollywood) think it's good. It will likely be the second or third preference of voters whose first choice is one of the other "small" films that have been nominated.
For a nice graphic illustrating how IRV may work in the Oscars, see this USA Today piece.