And the Award Goes To… Instant Runoff Voting
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And the Award Goes To… Instant Runoff Voting

February 4, 2014

Greg Rice

At the end of each year, the Academy sends out Oscar ballots to its members for Best Picture and other awards. And they do it in a more thoughtful way than the U.S. picks its president. The Oscars nominations use an ‘instant runoff’ ranking system, meaning you don’t just submit your top pick, you rank your picks in order, from most preferred to least preferred. The rationale behind this: it encourages you to vote on the films you actually think are the best, instead of focusing your votes only on the films you believe have a chance to win.

At the end of each year, the Academy sends out Oscar ballots to its members for Best Picture and other awards.  And they do it in a more thoughtful way than the U.S. picks its president.

The Oscars nominations use an ‘instant runoff’ ranking system, meaning you don’t just submit your top pick, you rank your picks in order, from most preferred to least preferred.  The rationale behind this: it encourages you to vote on the films you actually think are the best, instead of focusing your votes only on the films you believe have a chance to win.

So, how does it work?  Here’s an example.  Say you are voting for Best Picture nominations.  There are some pictures you love that have some buzz and you feel have a good chance to be nominated:  e.g. Gravity.  But you love some smaller pictures that you think are better: e.g. Spike Jonze’s Her.   If you had limited votes for Best Picture, you may actually ignore a smaller movie like Her and shift your vote to Gravity, since you want a voice in the process.  You think giving a vote to Her is essentially throwing your vote away.  The ‘front runner’ effect has changed your vote.

But instead, the Oscars allow you to rank your votes in an ‘instant runoff.’  Using this system, you put Her at the top of your list, and Gravity underneath it.   If enough people think like you, those first place votes for Her would add up to give it a nomination.  But if very few people vote for Her, then your ballot automatically changes your vote to your next choice in the ranking.  So your ‘wasted’ vote for Her, turns into a ‘not-wasted’ vote for Gravity.   And because you knew your vote was not going to be wasted, it freed you up to vote for what you actually wanted instead of what you thought others wanted.

As a result of this ranking system, we actually have seen more-and-more smaller movies make its way into Best Picture nominees.  Her, Nebraska, and Philomena made the cut this year, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour made it in last year.

This ranking system is not often used in voting for public officials, but it should be.   It would free voters up to send votes to third parties without worrying that their votes will be wasted.   The 2000 presidential election would have been a lot less controversial if the votes for Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan eventually were assigned to the actual front-runners, Al Gore and George W. Bush.  And if people knew that it was safe to vote for third party candidates, Nader and Buchanan may have received a larger share of first place votes, giving their third-parties actual momentum to build on in future elections.

So basically the Oscar voting process is very thoughtful and our presidential process isn’t.  Which is pretty much in line with where our priorities lie, right?

Greg Rice

Senior Consultant, Los Angeles

Greg provides senior strategic oversight on quantitative and mixed method engagements with a unique blend of right brain/left brain thinking. He is well-known within the research industry for his...

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