Oscar accountants lift veil on voting
Rick Rosas, Brad Oltmanns oversee balloting

Published January 8th 2008 in Variety Magazine
Ah, the Academy Awards. Perfectly styled celebrities. One-of-a kind gowns. Opulent parties. But before any of that, one thing must happen first -- the accounting.

That's right. Without accounting -- careful tabulation of all the votes -- there can be no nominees, no winners and possibly no gift bags. And coming up with a list of nominees is fairly tricky because you're looking for something different than a photo finish across a red line.

"We're not trying to find one winner," says Rick Rosas who counts the ballots along with Brad Oltmanns. Both work for PricewaterhouseCoopers. "We're trying to find the five nominees who have the broadest support in that particular branch of the Academy."

This is why they use what's called a preferential voting system or -- if you'd like to sound smart and fancy -- single transferable voting. The process was selected in 1936 and has been in use ever since.

It starts when the members of each branch select their five favorite performances or pieces of work in order of preference for their category. When these ballots arrive at PricewaterhouseCoopers, they're sorted by hand according to everyone's first choice.

In order to be deemed nominated, an artist or movie must receive a qualifying number of first-preference votes. The number of votes it takes to lock up a nomination is determined by taking the total tally of votes cast in a particular category and dividing it by the number of nominee slots available plus one. So that's six for categories like best actor (five noms allowed) and four for categories like visual effects (where there are only three nominees).

"We divide by that number because it means there's significant support among the voters for that nominee if they get that number of votes," says Rosas.

Still, this process doesn't always produce nominees right away.

"It's often the case that on the first pass, no one gets nominated," Rosas says. "You're talking about people, so everyone has their own opinion, and what we're trying to do is tease out which five have the most support amongst the broadest number of voters."

When the first count produces no nominees, the accountants start eliminating from the bottom up. They take the candidates who had the fewest amounts of first-place votes and remove them from further consideration.

Even though those people or films are taken out of consideration, their ballots are redistributed individually according to the person or film selected as the second-preference nominee by the voter. So, for example, if you voted for "Film A" as your first-choice nominee and "Film B" as your second choice nominee, should "Film A" be eliminated, your vote would be re-allocated to "Film B."

At that point, the accountants re-tally and see where everybody stands after the redistribution of votes. This process of elimination and redistribution continues with second (or third, fourth or even fifth) choice if necessary until there are six stacks of votes. The five with the most votes are the nominees.

Keep breathing. The good news is the rest of the voting process -- choosing winners from the nominees -- is completely straightforward.

"It's actually like a high school election," Rosas says. "You get a ballot with five nominees in each of the categories, and you select one, and the one with the most votes wins."

When the counting is done, around 1,700 human hours are generally logged, and the accountants and their team leave their secret tabulation location and return to other duties. "We spend over 10 days sometimes on the nominations and around three days determining the winners," Rosas says. "But it's an exciting time every year."