Memo to Oscar voters:
I didn’t want to write this again. I’ve been writing about the Oscars’ ranked-choice voting and how you can’t really game the system for about 13 years now, ever since I broke the story about the Academy moving to what they called preferential voting in the newly-expanded Best Picture category on my first day at TheWrap back in 2009.
I’ve written about it many, many times since then, and even made a video about it. But there are lots of new Academy members these days, and I’ve been getting some questions lately that make it clear how plenty of voters don’t understand that one of the strengths of ranked-choice is that you don’t have to try to get cute with your ballot.
That ballot — which is different from every other Oscar category, where you simply vote for your favorite — asks you to rank the Best Picture nominees in order of preference, 1-through-10. And that ranking throws up a lot of red flags for people who worry that they can hurt their No. 1 choice by voting for something else lower on the ballot.
At the Producers Guild Awards last weekend, an Oscar-nominated producer called me over to explain the system to an Oscar-nominated writer. And the main question the producer wanted addressed was one that I’ve heard a lot: If you really want to help your favorite film, isn’t it best to vote for it in the No. 1 spot and leave the rest of your ballot blank?
The answer to that question is no, that doesn’t do anything to help your film. If you put your favorite film at No. 1, nothing else you can do will hurt it. If it doesn’t win, it’s not your fault — but if doesn’t win and you didn’t rank anything else on your ballot, you’ve taken away your own chance to have a say in what does win, and you’ve also made it a little bit easier for whatever does win.
Here, once again, with Oscar voting beginning on Thursday morning and running through March 7, is how it works and why that matters.
You have 10 spots on your ballot, but you are not giving 10 points to your top choice, 9 points to your second choice, etc. You are casting a single vote for a single movie: the one ranked first on your ballot.
So that’s where the counting starts, with all the ballots separated into 10 piles depending on which film is ranked first.
This year, there are 9,579 eligible voters in the Academy. To win Best Picture, you need more than half the votes, so if every eligible member voted, a movie would need 4,790 first-place votes. (If 90% of them voted, it’d need 4,311.) It is, however, reasonable to assume that no movie would get more than half the first-place votes. In that case, the movie that got the fewest first-place votes is eliminated, and each of its ballots go into the pile for whatever movie is ranked second on that ballot.
If that’s not enough to push a movie over the 50% threshold, the count will continue round after round, with the last-place film eliminated and its ballots shifting to the voters’ No. 2 choices – unless that choice has already been eliminated, in which case the vote will move to the highest-ranked film that’s still in the running.
In the early rounds, voters’ second and third choices will often come into play; in later rounds, you could go all the way into the seventh, eighth, even ninth-place choices. The process is designed to find the movie with the most widespread support. That might be the movie that got the most No. 1 votes (in every mock count I’ve never done, it has been), but it could also be a movie with fewer No. 1s but more overall support.
But here’s the thing to keep in mind: Your vote will stay with the movie you’ve ranked first unless that movie is eliminated. If it’s eliminated, nothing you did could have prevented that elimination, because you were voting for it all the way to the bitter end. If Voter A ranks Movie X first on his ballot and also fills in every other spot on that ballot, while Voter B puts Movie X at No. 1 and leaves the rest of his ballot blank, there is absolutely no difference in how much those two voters helped Movie X.
But there is a difference in how those two voters will affect the winner. Once Movie X is eliminated, Voter A’s ballot will go to his or her favorite movie that’s still in the running. This voter will retain a vote all the way to the end.
Voter B’s ballot, though, will be thrown out once Movie X is eliminated, because there’s nothing else listed. This has two effects: It means Voter B no longer has any say in what wins Best Picture, and it lowers the magic number that the winner needs to hit.
Remember, you need more than 50% of the vote to win Best Picture – so for every two ballots that are thrown out because voters didn’t rank enough movies, the winning number drops by one.
Look, if you truly think that (hypothetically) “Triangle of Sadness” is great and every other Best Picture nominee is terrible, and you honestly don’t care what wins if it’s not “Triangle,” then I suppose you could save yourself a few minutes by not filling out the whole ballot.
But if you have any kind of opinion about the other films (you have seen them all, right?), then you should do what the ballot asks you to do. Put the movie you like best at No. 1 and the movie you like least at No. 10 (where it’ll never get your vote), and rank everything else in between. That will do nothing to hurt your favorite movie — and just as important, it’ll do nothing to hurt your ability to have a say in this election. And when you gripe about the winner, at least you’ll know you participated rather than making it easier for whatever awful movie did win.
By the way, the producer I talked about toward the beginning of this story wasn’t advocating the “leave nine slots blank” strategy; they were just looking for an explanation of why that strategy didn’t accomplish anything. (Mind you, I have been around some producers who definitely advocated that strategy.)
And when I supplied that explanation in the lobby at the Producers Guild Awards, the writer I mentioned immediately said, “Oh, so I should fill out all the slots on my ballot.”
Correct, that writer should — and I feel pretty confident that they will. And if you’re an Oscar voter, you should, too.