What the Oscars teach us about voting

This year, the voting process for the Oscars has changed. Rather than indicating a single choice as they have done since 1946, members of the Academy will provide a first choice, a second choice, etc.. potentially ranking all 10 nominees for Best Picture if so desired. Some are speculating that this will affect the results. Some are writing really confusing articles about this change, with very misleading lines like “Getting the most votes is no longer enough.” Here’s the short version of this post: (1) of course ranked-voting is going to affect the Oscar results! and (2) this year, the result will actually reflect the will of the Academy far better than previous years.

Debating voting methodology can usually get very heated. In fact, if I say anything negative about ranked-voting, more formally called instant-runoff voting (IRV), a legion of IRV fans will descend upon this blog with tremendous fury. Thankfully, in this case, there’s little room for disagreement: it’s pretty obvious that IRV will much more adequately represent the opinion of the Academy. In fact, it’s surprising that the Academy has been using plurality single voting, which can easily yield wildly inaccurate results. It makes one question the validity of past Oscar winners, and not only because the election is completely un-auditable by anyone other than the designated auditor firm.

Say, for example, that 30% like Avatar best, 25% Hurt Locker, 20% Inglorious Bastards, 15% Up in the Air, and 10% District 9. (Apologies to the other Oscar nominees, but I need a simple example.) Using last year’s voting method, Avatar wins. With 30% of the vote. But wait, what if the fans of District 9 hated Avatar, and really prefer Hurt Locker second best? Since their first choice was District 9, a less popular movie, it seems they effectively don’t have an impact on the result of the election… unless we take their second choice into account. Ok, so we give those 10% to Hurt Locker, and now Hurt Locker wins. But wait, what if the fans of Up in the Air mostly prefer Avatar to Hurt Locker, so we eliminate “Up in the Air” for not having received enough votes, then give those to Avatar, then Avatar wins, but wait… you get the picture. It’s not that complicated. Basically, it means that if the movie you really want to see win has no chance of winning, then we’ll look at your second choice instead. The really crazy thing is that, with last year’s method, it’s conceivable that, even if all the fans of Inglorious Bastards, Up in the Air, and District 9 prefer Hurt Locker to Avatar, meaning that in a 2-way-only election, Hurt Locker would win 70-30, Avatar STILL wins under the system used for the last 64 years.

Because of this oddity, the fans of District 9 might realize that their favorite has no chance and be tempted to select only between the two favorites, Avatar and Hurt Locker. In other words, the dark horses are inherently handicapped. With IRV, there’s no reason to resort to such silliness: vote for the dark horse first if that’s really your preference, and if not enough others agree, your second choice will be “activated,” and you won’t have lost your chance to influence the result. So, this year, a dark horse movie has a better chance of winning. But not because the voting system gave the dark horse an unfair advantage! Rather, because IRV better represents the will of the Academy. Even if one of the favorites does win, it will be a much more legitimate win than every year prior.

And here’s the funny thing. That crazy plurality single vote system I just described… that’s how we vote for President in the United States.

Wait a minute…

Did I just imply that IRV is awesome? I should be more careful. Everything I just explained assumes that voters are well informed and rational. I’m willing to believe that voters are mostly rational, but I don’t think they’re well informed. Specifically, a voter might easily believe that voting first for District 9, then for Avatar yields a “weaker” vote for Avatar if District 9 is knocked out of the running. Or, they might think that voting only for District 9 will yield a stronger vote than if they add a second or third choice because, in some sense, District 9 is then the only acceptable winner for those single-movie voters. In other words, I suspect voters will still vote strategically with IRV, only this time with an incorrect, ill-informed strategy. This is speculation, I don’t have hard numbers to back it up, only (significant) anecdotal experience with voters who find IRV deeply confusing.

What we really want is a voting system that assumes realistic behavior from voters who are typically not fully informed experts. In a way, we need to reduce flexibility for voters so that the average voter will be less likely to choose an ill-informed strategy. That method is probably approval voting, where a voter marks every candidate they find acceptable. No ranking, just a checkmark next to each candidate. Instructions are then very straight-forward: mark every candidate you would be happy to see win. Not perfect in terms of ill-informed-strategy-resistance, but a heck of a lot better than all the misconceptions that come with IRV.

Oscar voting is actually even weirder

Of course, as if the insanity of the Oscars’ voting system over the last few years weren’t enough, there’s more weirdness.

To select the nominees, the Oscars effectively run a multi-seat Single Transferable Vote, which is like IRV where you rank the options, but this time you’re filling multiple spots. This is the way that Cambridge, Massachusetts elects its City Council, and it’s the way Australia elects its Parliament, and it’s incredibly confusing because of how votes are redistributed when a candidate is knocked out of the running or, more importantly, how to redistribute extra votes for a candidate that already has passed the victory bar. How confusing? Well, in Cambridge, the result of the election may depend on the order in which you count the ballots. Yep, you read that right, in a close election, the order of the ballots matters.

I’m not sure how it works exactly for the Oscar nomination process, but apparently the Oscars add a second complication: a nominee must be selected as a first choice by at least one person. Even if the movie is everyone’s second choice, it cannot be a nominee.

So, what this now means is that the Oscars are using a weirdly modified version of multi-seat Single Transferable Vote to select the nominees, and then a plurality single-vote to choose among those nominees, except this year where they’re re-running an IRV vote for Best Picture.

And to top it all off, you have to fully trust PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the auditors, who don’t even provide tallies, only the name of the winners.

Whoever said elections are simple?