It’s Time for Oscar Voting: Here’s How It Works

Who votes, how they vote and what happens once the ballots are cast

Arnold Schwartzman Oscar voting design
Design by Arnold Schwartzman; statuette (c) AMPAS

Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can now cast their ballots for the 88th Academy Awards. Oscar voting opened on Friday and runs for the next 12 days, though of course voters have already had almost a full month to catch up with and consider this year’s nominees.

Here’s how it works and what happens next:

How many people vote for the Oscars?
According to figures compiled by the Academy in December, 6,261 members are eligible to vote for the 88th Academy Awards.

Do they all vote in every category?
If they want to, yes. Voters are asked not to vote in categories where they haven’t seen all the nominees, but there’s no enforcement other than the honor system. Unlike the nominations phase, where Academy members only vote for achievements in their own branch, everybody can vote for everything in the final round.

Is that a good idea?
Well, it does mean that who gets nominated is based more on expert evaluation than who wins. As the brilliant but rumpled songwriter Randy Newman once said to me, “Why should I be able to vote for costume design? I mean, look at me.”

How many of the eligible voters actually cast ballots?
We don’t know. A PricewaterhouseCoopers ballot supervisor once told me that the percentage was extremely high and would be the envy of any election. In recent years, the only actual figure the Academy has released came in 2013, when then-AMPAS president Hawk Koch said the last Oscars had seen 90 percent of the members cast ballots. Two years later, the Academy said its most recent show had record participation.

Aren’t there categories where you have to go to special screenings in order to vote?
Not anymore. Until a couple of years ago, voting in the Best Documentary Feature, Best Foreign Language Film and three shorts categories was restricted to members who’d seen all the nominated films in theaters (and the shorts in special Academy screenings).

But those rules were changed, and all 24 categories are now on the Oscar ballot.

So how do members see all the nominated films?
The Academy screens all the nominees for members in its two L.A. theaters, the Samuel Goldwyn Theater and Linwood Dunn Theater. For instance, members can take in a Valentine’s Day double bill at the Dunn of “The Martian” followed by “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Members in the U.S. also received a fancy gold sleeve with this year’s Oscar motto on it (“we all dream in gold”), containing 13 DVDs with all of the foreign, doc and shorts nominees.

What if you don’t live in L.A.?
The foreign, doc and shorts nominees are also screened for members in New York and London. Members elsewhere in the U.S. received the folder of DVDs, while those overseas are part of a beta test and were given a link to a site where they can stream those nominated films.

Plus everybody in the Academy gets screeners from the studios.

How do you vote on a paper ballot?
All 24 categories are listed on an accordion-fold ballot, with Best Picture occupying its own section of the ballot so that it can be detached and counted separately. Except in the four acting categories, the names of the nominated films are listed, but not the names of the individual nominees. So, for instance, if you want to vote for Alejandro G. Inarritu for Best Director, you check the box next to “The Revenant.”

How do you vote online?
The Academy sends a link to a secure site, where you sign in with the same ID and password you use to pay dues or access other members’ content. Each page contains a single category; after voting in one category, you move to the next page and the next category.

The Academy, by the way, says that “the overwhelming majority” of members opt for online voting.

What does the ballot ask you to do?
In 23 of the 24 categories, voters are asked to cast a vote for one of the nominees. In the Best Picture category they’re asked to rank all the nominees in order of preference.

So that if a voter’s first choice falls out of the running, the ballot will show his or her next preference.

So they don’t just count up the No. 1 votes?
Nope. The count keeps going, round after round, until it identifies a true consensus favorite. That might be the film that got the most No. 1 votes, but it doesn’t have to be.

What if you don’t rank all the nominees on your ballot?
If the film you ranked first is the winner or the runner-up, it got your vote and there was nothing else you could have done. But if the film or films you voted for fall out of the running, you’ve wasted your opportunity to influence the election by not indicating your preference among the remaining films.

What about strategy? Shouldn’t you figure out the biggest rival to your favorite film, and make sure you rank it last?
If you think it’s the worst of the nominees, sure. If not, what you’re doing is pointless and petty. You can never hurt your first choice by any additional ranking on your ballot. One advantage of the preferential system is that it really does allow you to forget about playing games with your ballot, and can honestly vote the way you feel without fear.

When is the deadline?
Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 5:00 p.m.

How will the votes be counted?
A small group of PwC accountants, led by Martha Ruiz and Brian Cullinan, will collect all the paper ballots, and then make printouts of all the online ballots. While the other accountants are dealing with the rest of the categories, Ruiz and Cullinan will count the Best Picture category themselves.

How do they make sure the others don’t know the results?
Ruiz and Cullinan will divide up the ballots among different teams so that every other PwC employee only counts a portion of each category. They will then add up all the subtotals to arrive at the winners.

Yeah, but if a race is a runaway, won’t even a partial group of ballots tell you who’s going to win?
Yes, it probably will. But what can you do?

Where does all of this take place?
The official answer: “An undisclosed location.” I once had someone swear to me that their sister knew somebody at PwC who knew for a fact that it was all done in the firm’s Chicago office, which seemed far-fetched and needlessly complicated. I had somebody else tell me it was in PwC’s downtown L.A. headquarters, and all the “undisclosed location” stuff was just a smokescreen. I’m not sure I believe that one, either.

Once the balloting leaders at PwC know the winners, how are the envelopes prepared without people knowing?
Three sets of envelope inserts saying “THE OSCAR GOES TO…” and bearing the name of every possible winner are prepared and delivered to PwC. Ruiz and Cullinan stuff three sets of correct envelopes privately, and then destroy the cards sporting the names of the losers.

When they come to the Oscars, are the briefcases containing the envelopes really handcuffed to their wrists?
No. But they do take separate routes to the theater in case of traffic, and they have undercover cops guarding them.

How long do they have to keep the secret?
Two to four days, depending on the category. They typically learn the identity of winners in the first few categories on Wednesday, more on Thursday and the final few on Friday.

Do they then read all the pundits’ Oscar predictions and snicker?
I can’t vouch for Ruiz and Cullinan, but former PwC balloting leader Rick Rosas told me that he did.