LA Times Under Fire for Flubbing Its Explanation of Oscar Voting

A front-page story tries to make a complex system clear, but gets some details wrong

Last Updated: February 19, 2015 @ 12:42 PM

The Los Angeles Times on Wednesday ran a front-page story that pointed out how most Oscar voters don’t understand the Academy’s system of ballot counting in the Best Picture category – but in the process, the Times showed that they have some problems of their own understanding the system.

And the piece prompted a quick response from Rob Richie, the executive director of FairVote, a non-profit group devoted to election analysis and reform. In a Huffington Post piece titled “L.A. Times Clunker: Page 1 Story Fails in Explaining Oscar Voting for Best Picture,” Richie praised the graphics that accompany the story, but added, “Unfortunately, the news story itself is a big disappointment … [that] gets key details wrong.”

Also read: Oscars’ 24 Final ‘Will Win, Should Win’ Predictions: ‘Birdman,’ ‘Boyhood,’ ‘Budapest’ Top a Baffling Year

Take the first sentence of the story, written by Times staff writer Glenn Whipp: “The Oscar winner for best picture Sunday night probably won’t be the movie that the majority of voters put atop their ballots.”

Actually, “the movie that the majority of voters put atop their ballots,” if there was such a movie, would be an automatic winner: The whole idea of the preferential system is that if a movie has more than 50 percent of the vote, it’s the winner.

Before we wade into this much further, a primer: As the Times story points out, the “preferential” system used by PricewaterhouseCoopers to count Oscar Best Picture ballots (and Oscar nominating ballots in most categories) is a version of the “instant runoff” voting used in some municipal elections.

Voters are asked to rank all the best picture nominees in order of preference, and the ballots are put in stacks based on each voter’s No. 1 choice. If no movie has more than 50 percent of the vote, the film with the fewest votes is eliminated, and its ballots are redistributed to the film ranked second on those ballots.

The process continues, with the lowest-ranked film eliminated and its votes allocated to the highest-ranked film still in contention on each ballot, until one film winds up with more than 50 percent of the vote.

See video: Steve Pond Explains It All: How the Oscars Voting Process Actually Works (Video)

Voters rank all the contenders, but each ballot goes to one movie — sometimes the No. 1 choice, sometimes the No. 2, sometimes lower.

So yes, it’s possible that one film could have fewer No. 1 votes than another, and still win by picking up additional votes as ballots are redistributed. (In fact, if “Boyhood” wins on Sunday, that’ll likely be its route to victory.)

But to imply, as Whipp does, that the movie with the most first-place votes probably won’t win is wrong. As Richie pointed out, the history of instant runoff elections shows that having the most No. 1 votes in the first round of counting almost always leads to victory.

Citing the example of San Francisco elections that use the system, Richie wrote, “Of the 51 administered elections that used ranked choice voting, 30 were won on the first count. Of the 21 others, 19 were won by the candidates who led after the first count. Only two were ‘comeback victories.’”

That Times error might be attributable more to sloppy phrasing than misunderstanding — if Whipp had begun with the far less eye-catching “The Oscar winner for best picture Sunday night might not be be the movie with the most first-place votes,” he’d be on safer ground.

Also read: Why This Year’s Oscar Race Will Go Down to the Wire

But later in the piece is a more damaging passage that endorses a useless strategy, one that TheWrap has debunked on numerous occasions.

“…[S]ome academy members, particularly those with a vested interest in the outcome, know enough to rank their own movie first and their closest competitor’s last,” it reads.

But that’s not a tactic that anyone who “knows enough” would ever use, because it doesn’t work. If you rank your movie first, nothing else you do on your ballot can hurt that movie. It makes absolutely no difference whether your competitor is ranked second or eighth — your vote won’t go to that movie unless your first choice is eliminated. And if it is, that elimination was absolutely no fault of yours, and had nothing to do with where anything else was ranked on your ballot.

Putting your biggest competitor last might help make that competitor lose to some different movie, but it won’t do anything to help your movie — and to paint a person who uses that strategy as being knowledgeable, as the Times does, is misleading and dead wrong.

TheWrap wrote about that “vote for us first and our chief rival last” strategy in 2011 in a piece titled “Oscars Best Picture Ballot: Don’t Believe the Schmucks.”

Richie cited that piece in his Huffington Post piece, adding, “Unfortunately, Whipp just elevated the ‘schmuck’ analysis to page one of the Los Angeles Times.”

Richie wrote to Whipp to make him aware of the inaccuracies before posting his HuffPo piece, and the first comment about the story made on the Times website points out the inaccuracy as well. The Times has yet to address the criticism or run a correction, and did not respond to TheWrap’s requests for comment.