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And the Award for Best Voting System Goes to…

Last year, the Center for Election Science wrote up a quick blog post on the Oscars to motivate a discussion of voting reform.  Since 2009, the Oscars have used Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) to decide the winner of the prestigious Best Picture award, but there is growing backlash against this voting system because of a number of strange properties it possesses.  For example, the winner of an IRV election may not be the most favored candidate among the voters; for another strange example, it can sometimes be to your advantage to rank your preferred candidate last instead of first.  Here’s a video explaining some of these weird features:

Instead of using IRV, a strong argument could be made for using Score voting (also known as Range voting).  I’ve discussed these voting systems before (see here for a discussion of the 2010 Oakland mayoral race, for example), so I will spare the details; the interested reader can find out more about Range Voting here, and one can find a direct comparison between Range voting and IRV here.  Very briefly, Range voting is a much simpler system than IRV, and is familiar to anyone with a Netflix account.  Rather than voting for a single candidate, or ranking candidates, in Range voting, voters are allowed to give each candidate a score (say, from 0 to 10) – one may score as many candidates as one wishes, and there are no restrictions on the number of, say, 10s one may dole out to the pool of candidates.

This is particularly nice for film, since one already has a good pool of Range voting data – namely, IMDB scores (though it should be noted that these scores may suffer from some kind of voter bias, since there’s little incentive for an average person to score movies on the site).  So, as the Center for Election Science did last year, here I’ve listed each of the Best Picture Nominees along with their IMDB score, as a kind of test case for what might have happened had the Academy used a different voting system for selecting the best picture.  Here is a list of the 9 Best Picture nominees, sorted by IMDB ranking.

Unlike the previous two years, this year the Best Picture as selected by the Academy agreed with the Best Picture selected by IMDB voters.  Of course, this isn’t necessarily an endorsement of the voting system used by the Academy – The Artist was praised by critics, but was also a crowd-pleaser (for the handful of people who went to see it).

Related to this, one might ask how the Best Picture nominees are selected in the first place.  After all, a score of 6.6 hardly seems worthy of a Best Picture nod – mustn’t there have “better” films released during 2011?  In fact, the voting rules for selecting nominees were changed this year; some articles on the (needlessly complicated) voting system can be found here, here, and here.  Again, by comparing the actual nominees to the IMDB listing of the highest ranked films of 2011 (see here), we find some notable exceptions.  Excluding documentaries and foreign language films films (which have their own categories), some of the more highly ranked films of 2011 include Warrior (8.3), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (8.1), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (8.1), Drive (8.0), and 50/50 (8.0).  In fact, none of the top 50 movies of 2011 as ranked by IMDB score have a rating less than 7.5.  It stands to reason that the voting process used to determine Oscar nominees (and yes, winners too) could use some improvement.

Unfortunately, because the results of Oscar ballots are kept secret, even after Oscar night, it’s difficult to conduct a more thorough analysis of the voting systems.  While it’s clear that the Oscar results don’t always reflect the preferences of the movie-going public, perhaps it is the case that the results reflect the preferences of the average older white man, since apparently older white men make up the majority of the Academy’s voters.

(For more on voting systems and awards shows, see here!)

  • Aaron

    I think it’s interesting that the video you linked to (which I have not watched) includes “Is it democratic?” in the title. Does not our existing “democratic” ballot system in the US suffer from the same problem: that the winner of any ballot with more than two candidates may not be the most favored candidate?

  • Aaron Hamlin


    If you look at the videos within that same channel, you can see that the creator is not a fan of the status quo (Plurality Voting) either. It just so happens that Plurality and IRV are both pretty bad.

    Also, nice article, Matt!

  • Jack

    The video is propaganda.

    As to score voting, the Academy voted to get rid of it for nominating best documentary because voters were messing with it. They decided to go single transferable vote, which is the multi-winner version of instant runoff voting. They’ve used it for decades. That might make your video propagandist unhappy, but so it goes.

    You need to go back to the drawing board!

  • Elmer

    Of course the voting process could use some improvement, after all we’re talking about Oscar…but let’s be serious, do you think they will change it?

  • Kiernan

    I take issue with the video’s conclusions. Simply because a candidate would defeat other candidates in a “head-to-head” contest doesn’t mean that candidate is the most preferred. One of the reasons I like IRV is its balancing act: a candidate who is totally “compromise” (that is, favored only as an alternative to someone worse) won’t do very well, but no candidate can win the election without having 50% of the voters sign off on his election. Burlington’s system was messed up largely because of its not obligating voters to rank every candidate. By forcing every voter to rank every candidate, the voting is balanced, fair, and accurate. This “Range Voting” system strikes me as susceptible to easy manipulation, and also likely to yield an unexpected winner. With U.S. politics as it is, most voters can’t offer an opinion on Green Party or Libertarian Party nominees, at least not to the point of rating them. If most voters opted out of ranking a 3rd party candidate, that candidate, by virtue of his small but steady support, could win the election. This isn’t democratic at all. In such an instance, Ron Paul would win every primary. Another issue would be, of course, the inherent subjective nature of assigning numerical values to movies, candidates, or anything. There’s no standard, until in IRV, which is very standard: you pick the candidates from first to last.

  • Mark Monnin


    The reason IRV is not good is that you could have a loser for which the majority of voters think there’s a better alternative.

    For example, if the Right prefers the Right, then the Middle, then the Left, and they make up 49% of the voters; the Left prefers the Left, the Middle, then the Right, and they make up 49% of the voters; 1% prefer the Middle, the Right, then Left; and the last 1% prefer the Middle, the Left, then the Right. In this case, the Middle should win. Despite only getting 2% of First Choice votes, both of the extremes agree the Middle is better than the other extreme. The Middle beats the Right 51% to 49% and beats the Left 51% to 49%. If the Right/Left had been elected, 51% of voters (a majority) agree that they’d rather have the Middle.

  • Mark Monnin

    *I mean there’s a winner but a better alternative.