Oscar Voting Begins: Why You Can’t Game the Best Picture Ballot System and 4 More Myths Exploded

We clear up all the misconceptions about the Academy’s mysterious preferential voting system for Best Picture

Oscar voting began on Tuesday, which means that 7,902 Academy members are now eligible to cast their final ballots in 23 categories in which the film with the most votes wins — and one category that’s significantly more complicated than that.

The odd category, of course, is Best Picture, where in 2009 the Academy changed the voting system at the same time they expanded the category from five to 10 nominees.

Under the old system, and the system in place in every other Oscar category, voters select one of the five nominees, and the film with the most votes wins — so a winner could theoretically get 20.1 percent of the vote. But in Best Picture, members are asked to rank the eight nominees in order of preference.

(Contrary to a competitor’s recent analysis, they’re asked to rank all eight, not just their top five.)

Once the ranking is submitted, the votes are counted using the preferential, or ranked-choice, system. The process is designed to ferret out the movie with the most widespread across-the-board support — which might be the movie with the most No. 1 votes, but also might be a movie with fewer No. 1s but more overall support.

The process can be tricky to understand, and even Academy officials have acknowledged that most voters don’t really know how it works. And because of that, a host of misconceptions and myths have sprung up around the process.

So I’m here to dispel some of those myths.

Myth No. 1: When you rank the films on your Best Picture ballot, you’re giving a different number of points to each film on the ballot.
Sorry, that’s not how the preferential system works. In fact, you are casting one vote for one movie. In the first round, your vote goes to the movie you’ve ranked first. Your No. 1 choice gets a single vote, and nothing else on your ballot gets anything.

And that’s when things get trickier. The Best Picture ballots are printed out and separated into stacks based on the first-place choice on each ballot. To win, a film must have more than half the votes — which, if all 7,902 eligible Academy members cast ballots, means 3,952 votes. (If only about 90 percent of members vote, the magic number slides down to a little over 3,500.)

The chances of a film getting more than 50 percent of the vote in a field of eight are very slim, and in a year as competitive as this one they’re virtually nil. So this is where the rankings kick in: The film with the fewest No. 1 votes is eliminated from contention, and all of its ballots are redistributed into the piles of the films ranked second on those ballots.

Then the votes are recounted — and if nothing has passed the 50 percent threshold, the process is repeated with the last-place film eliminated and its ballots redistributed. In every new round of redistribution, the votes for each eliminated film will transfer to the highest-ranked film still in the running on each ballot.

In the first round of redistribution, that would always be the film ranked second; in the second round, it could be the film ranked second or third. As more rounds take place and more films are eliminated, lower choices on a voter’s ballot could come into play.

Now that we’ve established how it works, back to the misconceptions.

Myth No. 2: If you want to cast an effective ballot, you should rank your favorite film No. 1 and its biggest rival No. 8.
Nope. This is a prevalent strategy, but also a completely useless one.

If you vote for your favorite at No. 1, your vote goes to that movie and stays with that movie unless it’s eliminated from contention. And if it’s eliminated, you had nothing to do with its elimination, regardless of where on the ballot you ranked anything else.

Now, if you HATE your favorite movie’s biggest rival and think it’s the worst of the nominees, by all means put it last. But if you secretly think it’s pretty good, then rank it where you think it belongs, secure in the knowledge that if it wins and your movie loses, it wasn’t your fault.

Bottom line: You can’t do anything to help your movie beyond ranking it No. 1.

Myth No. 3: It’s an effective strategy to vote for your favorite and leave the rest of the ballot blank.
No, it’s an ineffective strategy unless you have absolutely no interest in what wins if your movie doesn’t.

If the movie you put at the top of your ballot is one of the two movies that make it all the way to the end of the count, then your ballot will always be in play. (Conventional wisdom says that those two movies this year will be “Roma” and “Green Book,” but things are far too crazy for that to be any kind of certainty.) But if somewhere along the way your top choice gets eliminated from contention, a ballot with a No. 1 and seven blanks simply gets discarded, and you’ll have no say in what wins Best Picture.

Now, if you’re an all-or-nothing kind of voter, fine; if it really doesn’t matter to you who wins if your favorite doesn’t, then go ahead and leave the rest of the ballot blank. But keep in mind that you can’t gripe about who wins if you give up your chance to influence the election. If your choice drops out of the running, your vote no longer counts.

Myth No. 4: Because the films with the fewest No. 1 votes get their ballots redistributed first, those voters have extra influence on what wins.
Remember, we’re looking for a film that will end up with more than 50 percent of the vote. It’s impossible for two different films to reach that figure, regardless of the route they take to get there. As soon as the ballots are cast, there is only one possible Best Picture winner, and the system will find it.

We double-checked this with Rob Richie, president and CEO of the Maryland-based FairVote electoral reform organization and an expert on — and staunch advocate of — ranked-choice voting. He made a political analogy:

“In candidate terms, suppose it was 47 percent for a Democrat, 46 percent for a Republican, 4 percent for a Green and 3 percent for a conservative libertarian. Suppose in simplistic terms that if all of Green voters back the Democrat as second choice and all of the libertarian votes back the Republican as a second choice. The fact that the libertarian goes out first doesn’t elect the Republican — it ends up 51 percent for the Democrat and 49 percent for the Republican no matter what.”

Myth No. 5: You can game the system.
This misconception takes a variety of forms and strategies, but the basic truth is that ranked-choice voting is designed to work extremely well if a voter casts his or her ballot honestly and completely. And none of the tactics designed to game the system accomplish what they set out to do.

Essentially, the ranked-choice ballot asks a series of questions. In the first round, it says, “Of these eight films, which do you prefer?” If it doesn’t come up with a winner, it eliminates one contender and says, “Of these seven films, which do you prefer?” It can keep asking those questions all the way down to “Of these two films, which do you prefer?” — and if a ballot has been filled out fully, the voter will have an answer every time the question is asked.

And whether the last two films left standing this year are “Roma” and “Green Book” or “BlacKkKlansman” and “Black Panther” or “The Favourite” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Vice” and “A Star Is Born,” it’ll all come down to a simple question: Which of the two is ranked higher on more ballots?

By the way, FairVote is hosting a mock Oscars ballot on Twitter, where they update the results every five minutes and you can click on the results to see how this works.

As of this afternoon, “Roma” had won in the sixth round of voting, with an interesting pattern: It was ranked first on 35 percent of the ballots, but didn’t pick up any new votes from the first two films to be eliminated, “Green Book” and “Vice.” It did, however, pick up votes from each of the next three — “The Favourite,” “BlackkKlansman” and “A Star Is Born” — to pass the 50 percent threshold in the sixth round.

(For the record, “Black Panther” finished second and “Bohemian Rhapsody” third, not that FairVote’s Twitter participants are any kind of representation of how the Academy will go.)

And back about five years ago, I made a rather crude video demonstrating how it works using poker chips.

Voting ends on Tuesday, Feb. 19, with the results announced (on the air and during commercial breaks) on Feb. 24.