And the Oscar Goes to...Not Its Voting System
Selection of Academy Award Nominees and Winners is Flawed, but
Reformers Can't Seem to Elect a Better Candidate
By CARL BIALIK
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Academy Award nominees and winners are selected using two different
voting systems that are, according to some political mathematicians,
the worst way to convert voters' preferences into an election outcome.
The nominees are selected using a system called instant runoff, which
has been adopted in some municipal and state elections. Out of last
year's 281 eligible films, each voter selects five nominees in order
of preference for, say, best picture. All movies without any
first-place votes are eliminated. The votes for those films with the
least first-place votes are re-assigned until five nominees have enough.
One problem with that system is a kind of squeaky-wheel phenomenon: A
movie that is second place on every ballot will lose out to one that
ranks first on only 20% of ballots but is hated by everyone else.
Then, in another upside-down outcome, a movie can win for best picture
even if 79% of voters hated it so long as they split their votes
evenly among the losing films. This isn't as unfamiliar as it sounds:
Some people think Al Gore would have won the Electoral College in 2000
if Ralph Nader hadn't diverted more votes from him than he took from
former President George W. Bush.
[Oscar] Getty Images
"It's crazy," says Michel Balinski, professor of research at Ãcole
Polytechnique in Palaiseau, France. The nomination system's properties
are "truly perverse and antithetical to the idea of democracy," says
Steven Brams, professor of politics at New York University. He thinks
the final vote for the Oscar winner may be even worse than the
selection of nominees.
The big problem: If voting systems themselves were put to a vote,
prominent scholars would each produce a different ballot, then
disagree about which system should be used to select the winner. So
it's no surprise that advocates of alternate voting systems, which
range from simple yes/no approval ratings to assigning numerical
scores to each candidate, have had little more luck reforming
political elections than they have with entertainment awards.
Consider two systems that, on the surface, seem similar. Prof.
Balinski and mathematician Rida Laraki have devised a system they call
majority judgment that requires voters to rank each candidate on a
scale from 1 to 6. The votes are lined up in order, and each candidate
is assigned the middle, or median, score. The highest median score
wins. Another system, range voting, isn't that different: The
candidate with the highest average, or mean, score wins.
Yet the second system's leading advocate, Temple University
mathematician Warren D. Smith, has devoted a Web page to the
Balinksi-Laraki system's "numerous disadvantages."
Brace yourselves for "Ishtar" defeating "The Godfather." Suppose 49
voters award "The Godfather" six points and "Ishtar" only four. One
voter grants the desert debacle four points and the mafia masterpiece
three, and the remaining 49 award "The Godfather" three points and
"Ishtar" only one point. "Ishtar" actually wins with a median score of
four points compared to "The Godfather's" three points. Prof.
Balinski, in turn, calls range voting a "ridiculous method," because
it can be manipulated by strategic voters.
Despite the flaws in Oscars voting, the system remains as it has since
1936. Every 15 years or so, the Academy re-examines its voting and has
decided to stick with it, says the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and
Sciences' executive director, Bruce Davis. "It is a very effective
method of reflecting the will of the entire electorate," Mr. Davis says.
[Oscar voting system chart]
But many voting theorists aren't so keen on the system. It's called
instant runoff because it is used in political elections in lieu of a
two-stage vote in which top candidates compete again if none receives
a majority of the vote. Among the potential problems, showing up to
vote for your favorite candidate may create a worse outcome than not
showing up at all. For example, your vote could change the order in
which candidates are eliminated, and the next-in-line candidate on the
ballot for the newly eliminated film may be a film you loathe.
To choose Oscar winners, voters simply choose their favorite from the
nominees, and the contender with the most votes wins. That could favor
a film that has a devoted faction of fans, and sink films with
overlapping followings who split their vote. Even most critics of
instant runoff say it beats this plurality system that led to the
Gore-Nader-Bush result. In the film realm, Prof. Brams of NYU blames
the current system for the best-picture victory of "Rocky" over films
such as "Network" and "Taxi Driver" that he speculates would have won
head to head.
How this works out in reality is hard to know, because the Academy
doesn't release any details about the balloting, even after the
telecast, in part to avoid shaming fifth-place films. Mr. Davis says
even he never learns the numbers from his accountants: "Are there
years when I'm curious as to what the order of finish was? Absolutely.
But I recognize it as a vulgar curiosity in myself."
The Oscars involve two stages of voting, for nominees and for winners.
Delve into the math of elections in the Numbers Guy blog.
* Complete Coverage: Academy Awards
Such secrecy frustrates voting theorists who are anxious for
experimental data about voter behavior that may help them choose from
among different voting systems. Without such evidence, they are left
to devise their own studies, to dream up examples that sink rival
systems or to create computer simulations to study how easily
different systems can be manipulated.
Sports fans cry manipulation when votes don't go as they'd hoped. Many
sports awards and rankings are derived from what is known as Borda
count, which asks voters to rank candidates and then assigns points on
a sliding scale, with the most for first-place votes and the least for
Critics of these systems fear that strategic voters will assign their
top choice the highest possible score, and everyone else zero, thereby
seizing more power than voters who approach the system earnestly; or,
in the case of rankings, bury or omit a preferred candidate's top
rival. Boston Red Sox fans will tell you to this day that such
strategic voting by a New York beat writer cost Pedro Martinez the
American League Most Valuable Player award a decade ago.
Says Prof. Balinksi, "Not everyone will do it, but enough will do it
to manipulate the results."
There is a philosophical question obscured by that criticism: Should
voters with stronger feelings have more influence? A voter may support
Candidate A strongly and loathe all the rest; two other voters may
like Candidate A but slightly prefer B. Should B beat A even though
all voters would have been fine with A?
Some scholars back the Condorcet winner, the candidate that would beat
all others in head-to-head matchups. Trouble is, there isn't always
one. As an alternative, Prof. Brams advocates approval voting, which
tallies the number of voters who approve of each candidate and chooses
the one with the most votes.
Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, which has had success
pushing the adoption of instant runoff for elections, says that
approval voting doesn't fly with politicians: They're uncomfortable
with the idea that voters who prefer them might throw equal support to
a rival. For advocates of alternate systems, it's crucial to get
support from politicians because voters aren't likely to get excited
about such issues unless the country is hanging on a chad.
Mr. Richie argues that, in practice, instant runoff hasn't displayed
the feared paradoxes. He says his critics should go get their
preferred systems adopted so they can offer their own proofs of
concept. He adds that mathematicians haven't made much headway
changing voting laws "so they hound reformers who are being
successful, and that's just irritating."
Vanderbilt University mathematician Paul H. Edelman, who has consulted
with the Country Music Association on its annual awards, says his
colleagues should tone down the dogma and embrace a range of voting
systems for different situations. "The mistake that mathematicians
make is to assume that all elections are the same," Prof. Edelman
says. "That's a terrible thing to do."
Get Me a Recount
While Academy Award nominees and winners are selected using two
different voting systems, there are at least six other major ones that
have been proposed and studied by scholars. And each one can produce
different outcomes from the same ballots.
In a hypothetical 11-voter election, in which voters score eight
candidates from 0 to 20, each candidate would win under one of eight
major voting systems. Bolds mean that voter approves that candidate --
roughly equivalent to a yes/no vote.
Number of Ballots Candidate
A B C D E F G H
4 18 4 5 17 15 0 13 14
3 0 14 5 11 12 10 8 9
2 0 12 20 10 11 9 18 19
1 2 0 12 17 1 11 16 3
1 0 1 4 2 3 16 15 5
Wins in Plurality Runoff Instant runoff Borda count Condorcet
Approval voting Mean range voting Median range voting
See how each candidate wins in each system:
A wins in plurality: A has four first-place votes, more than any other
B wins in runoff: All but the top two first-place vote getters, A and
B, are eliminated. B is preferred by three of the four voters who
ranked other candidates first, and beats A, 6-5.
C wins in instant runoff: Under this system, each voter selects five
nominees, in order, in a given category. E, G and H have no
first-place votes and are eliminated first. Then come D and F, which
each have one first-place vote. Among remaining candidates, C ranks
second on those ballots, so C picks up two more first-place votes and
is now tied with A, with four. B, with three, is eliminated next, and
C ranks above A on the ballots that belonged to B, so C beats A, 7-4.
D wins in Borda count: Borda count asks voters to rank candidates and
then assigns points on a sliding scale, with the most for first-place
votes and the least for last-place ones. On each ballot, give seven
votes to the first-place contender, six to second, and so on, down to
zero for the last-place candidate. D edges E, 52-48.
E wins in Condorcet: The Condorcet winner is the candidate which beats
all others in head-to-head matchups. E beats every other candidate
head to head, by ranking higher than each on a majority of ballots. E
beats A, 6-5; B, 6-5; C, 6-5; D, 6-5; F, 9-2; G, 7-4; H, 7-4.
F wins in approval voting: This system tallies the number of voters
who approve of each candidate and chooses the one with the most votes.
F is approved by seven voters, edging D, approved by 6.
G wins in mean range voting: The mean vote for G is 13, edging D, with
H wins in median range voting: The median vote for H is 14, beating G,
which has 13.
Sources: Center for Range Voting; WSJ Research
Write to Carl Bialik at numbersguy@...