Referendum? Lie back and think of Oscar

By Zosia Bielski
Published October 9th 2007 in The National Post (Ontario)
Ontarians wrestling to make sense of tomorrow's referendum on electoral reform may get inspiration from an unlikely source: Hollywood's red carpet extravaganza, the Oscars.

Voters in the province will be asked to choose between the present first-past-the-post method, or proportional representation -- an electoral system in which all parties gain seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for them.

It is an issue that has left much of the public either confused, uninterested or both.

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences selects its nominees for moviedom's most coveted award, it uses the PR system.

The result, according to Fair Vote, a non-profit group based in Takoma Park, Md., is that critical sleepers get nominated, and sometimes even win. Think Alan Arkin, (best supporting actor, Little Miss Sunshine), or Halle Berry (best actress, Monster's Ball), or Crash (best picture), or Roberto Benigni (best actor, Life is Beautiful).

Although it serves as a useful allegory for those bored with Ontario's referendum, the Academy's process differs significantly from the mixed member proportional system proposed in the province. In January, after the Academy's 5,500 members receive ballots, they vote in their occupational category -- cinematographers for other cinematographers, actors for other actors --for up to five winners. Those that receive support from 20% of the voters automatically become nominees.

"Some people think a film like Life is Beautiful, when it won an Oscar, was able to win because the proportional representation system allowed a core group of supporters to get it through the nominating process. Under a first-past-the-post sysem, it might not have won," argues David Moon, Fair Vote's program director, admitting he is no "film prognosticator."

"If you're using the straight up first-past-the-post system all around, then a solid 30 to 50% bloc of a certain film taste could really put in all five nominees from the same genre, or same direction style, or same region even, if it's an international competition. That's where I think the proportional system provides the opportunity for diversity."

The wrinkle is that ultimately, while the Academy plucks its Oscar nominees using PR, it picks its winners with first-past-the-post, which explains Gladiator (best picture, 2000) and Braveheart (best picture, 1995). More diverse fare such as Chocolat and Il Postino went home without the Oscar trophy.

Still, Mr. Moon says the Hollywood allegory helps people set in their personal and political ways to consider, "in a much less biased and more rational context, what the impact of an electoral system is and what the pros and cons of changing it might be."

Today, Fair Vote uses gastrometaphors during its live demonstrations.

"Take a room full of people and ask them to all state their pizza topping preferences. Under a first-past-the-post system, everyone will be eating the pizza topping decided by the highest vote getter. And there's a fundamental unfairness in that I think even school children can see, when you have sizable pockets of support for mushroom."