SAG’s Online-Only Voting Could Disenfranchise Thousands

Exclusive: Screen Actors Guild says its green initiative is widely publicized, but some voters remain confused and still without their ballots

EXCLUSIVE

The 2011 Screen Actors Guild Awards could end up looking a lot like Florida in 2000.

There might not be any hanging chads, but changes the guild has introduced as a part of its green initiative could cost a significant number of members their votes this year.

SAG voting postcard

For six years, SAG has had an online option and has mailed our more than 90,000 ballots but encouraged its members to forgo the paper and cast their votes online. (The guild has won two awards from the Environmental Media Association for its green practices.)

For this year's awards, however, SAG decided in the summer to send ballots only to those members who specifically requested them, and is asking everyone else to hit their computers.

The change was publicized in an October press release, and in the fall-winter 2010 edition of Screen Actor magazine, which went to every member in November.

Then, on Dec. 30, in lieu of the usual ballot mailing, postcards (sample above left) were sent to every voter reiterating that paper ballots would only be mailed to members who requested them by Jan. 14.

The big question now is how many guild members paid attention to the postcards — and how many are internet-savvy enough to be able to follow the instructions.

Each postcard contained a PIN code that enables the voter to cast his or her ballot online, and a "movie code" that allows the member to download nominated films on iTunes and coupons good for free admission to theatrical showings of some of the nominated films.

"Lots of people now are asking me when they're going to be getting their ballots," said one consultant who contacted theWrap about the confusion. "I tell them they're not, that they have to vote online with the PIN number that was on their postcard. And they say, 'Oh, I threw that out.'"

SAG Awards spokesperson Rosalind Jarrett insisted that the guild gave its members substantial notice of the change, starting with the magazine article and also including the postcard, information on the SAG website and a press release that was sent both to media and to several thousand publicists, managers and agents.

"We were very conscious that some members may be less internet savvy than others," she told theWrap, pointing to the second paragraph of the article in SAG's print publication, which began, "If you’re not Web-connected, don’t despair. You may request a paper ballot now by calling our automated toll free line … "

(Jarrett declined to supply information about how many members requested paper ballots and how many voted online in past years, saying those figures are "kept confidential by our elections firm.")

Most SAG members surveyed by TheWrap agreed that they were not confused by the change, with one adding that she was in fact happy to receive "one small postcard instead of half-a-dozen pieces of paper."

But the oldest member in our informal canvassing said he hadn't been paying attention and had no idea that voting was taking place.

And even SAG members computer-savvy enough to use Twitter have been posting comments that suggest they're confused. (Sample from this week: "Dear SAG. I paid my dues! Where's my ballot??!? Voting for the awards is one of my great joys in life!")

And several publicists working on different campaigns approached TheWrap expressing concern that the change – which was in the works long before any of this year's nominees were known – was still causing confusion among members, and had the potential to disenfranchise thousands or even tens of thousands of SAG voters, particularly among older actors.

The Social Network and The King's Speech(On the face of it, the movie that stands to be hurt the most by any confusion is probably "The King's Speech," whose voters may on average be older than the typical fans for the other four Best Ensemble nominees: "The Social Network," Black Swan," "The Fighter" and "The Kids Are All Right.")

"Studios are spending money and holding screenings," charges one consultant, "but in the end, I'm afraid that a lot of SAG members won't know how to vote."

SAG Awards' Jarrett is confident that the members do know how to vote and that guild staff can assist any member still confused.

"An email address and phone number for our awards department staff has been posted in the member section of our website since the summer," she said. "Beginning Jan. 3, we brought on our annual group of supplemental staff members whose sole job is to answer member questions and assist members in voting procedures either by email or phone."

The SAG website reiterates the way to vote online, and also offers a link to retrieve a member's movie code online, though not the PIN. It refers additional questions to an email address (awardsinfo@sagawards.org) or to the phone number for the SAG Awards Office (323-549-6448), with the caveat, "IF YOU CANNOT GET THROUGH IMMEDIATELY, PLEASE BE PATIENT."