Oscar insight: Proportional voting system makes for wide-open nomination picks
A briefing for the entertainment press by the Center for Voting and Democracy

The Academy Awards uses a proportional voting system to select the five nominees for each category. Understanding this voting system is key to understanding the Oscar race. In this briefing, the Center for Voting and Democracy explains how proportional voting works and what it means for the Oscar contenders. Analysts from the Center are available for interviews and background. Please contact Dan Johnson-Weinberger at 312.933.4890 or the Center's national office in Washington DC at 301.270.4616.

How do Oscar nominees get chosen?

The 5,500 voting members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences choose the nominees for each award, as well as the winner among the five nominees. All members vote on Best Picture, while peers vote for nominees and winners in the other non-specialized categories (directors vote for Best Director, actors for Best Actor, etc.). But how exactly do these nominees get chosen?

The Academy uses a very inclusive voting system: proportional representation. This is designed to create a diverse slate of nominees that reflects the preferences of the broad spectrum of film artists who make up the organization's various branches.

Each nominating ballot has five numbered slots for each category that the member is eligible to vote in. Although each member only gets one vote, they are entitled to choose up to five potential nominees, in order. In case their favorite nominee is eliminated, their vote counts toward their second choice. There is no need to make calculations about whether an achievement has a realistic chance or not, because voters can't waste their votes. Academy members can support an unlikely candidate, as their vote will count for their second choice if their first choice is eliminated..

Any potential nominee that is supported by 20% of the voters will get 1 of the 5 nominations (that's proportional representation). With more than 5,000 ballots expected to be returned to the Academy in the Best Picture category, the magic number of first-choice votes for a would-be nominee for Best Picture is a little more than 1000.

Note: The exact quota is a bit lower than 20%. In order to find the lowest number of votes needed to win one of five nominations, the Academy divides the total number of votes by six (not five), and adds one more vote to that figure. That is 16.6% plus one more vote.

Picking the winner

Once the five nominees are chosen by proportional representation, another ballot is sent out to all Academy members. This time, preferential voting is not allowed. Whoever gets the most votes wins the Oscar and there is no need to get a majority of votes.

Where else is proportional representation used?

This same inclusive voting system is used to elect the city council of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Australian Senate and the parliament of Ireland. The plurality voting system to pick the winner -- where you don't have to earn a majority of votes -- is the same system we use to elect the president of the United States.

For more information:

"Excursions in Modern Mathematics", by Tannenbaum and Arnold, ISBN 013-1001914