The Oscars Use a More Fair Voting System Than Most of America Does

Since 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has used ranked-choice voting to select the Oscar winners in each category.

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 28:  Actress Brie Larson, winner of the Best Actress award for 'Room,' attends the 88th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on February 28, 2016 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images)
Actress Brie Larson, winner of the Best Actress award for 'Room,' attends the 88th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on February 28, 2016 in Hollywood, California. Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

The 90th Academy Awards brings with it anticipation from movie fans about who will come out on top.

Will Best Picture go to “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” or “The Shape of Water?” Will comic genius Jordan Peele take home an Oscar on Sunday for his original screenplay for “Get Out,” or does that distinction belong to Kumail Nanjiani, who could be the first Pakistani-American to win in the category for co-writing “The Big Sick” with his wife Emily Gordon?

But to political science nerds — and really, anyone who wants to see a more fair and representative voting system — the system that produces these Oscar wins is just as interesting.

Since 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has used ranked-choice voting, or RCV, to select Oscar winners in each category.

Nearly 8,500 voters select the nominees and the winners at the award show. These voters are drawn from various sectors of film production — from actors to various levels of producers. After coming under fire for the relative homogeneity of the voting population, the Academy has boosted its membership in recent years, with an emphasis on inviting more women and ethnic minorities into its fold.

Unlike traditional first-past-the-post voting systems — in which the candidate with the biggest number of votes takes home the gold — under RCV, voters rank candidates on their ballot instead of voting for just one. If no one gets a majority of votes in the first round, next-preference votes are counted until a candidate gets most of the votes.

What this means for the Oscars is that voters don’t have to worry about the immediate viability of their movie choices before offering them one of their votes. Let’s say you’re voting for Best Picture. Industry buzz has it that three films are considered the frontrunner for the spot this year: “The Shape of Water,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and “Get Out.”

Under the winner-takes-all system, you could argue that voting for any movie except those three is a wasted vote. You’re simply spoiling the election by voting for anyone else, right? But RCV changes all that. If you’re a huge fan of say, “Phantom Thread,” you can give that your first-preference vote. If “Phantom Thread” doesn’t get a majority of first-preference votes — which is extremely likely! — your second-preference vote will be taken into account, and so on.

This system not only ensures a fair hearing for less viable nominees, but it also makes sure that no movie can win without the support of a majority of voters. If the voting were to instead operate like the majority of U.S. elections, in a nine-nominee election, a movie could conceivably win with a 12 percent plurality vote.

It’s not inconceivable that RCV could be implemented in U.S. elections. Several cities around the country currently use ranked-choice voting, which eliminates the so-called spoiler effect, helps third-party candidates achieve viability, and ensures that no one can be elected without the support of the majority of the voters.

Minneapolis, Minnesota — one of the few large American cities that uses RCV in its elections — is an example of how the voting form can help underdog candidates get ahead. The city has a Green Party city council member, and it also had a very competitive socialist candidate in recent municipal elections.

Minneapolis Public Radio created the following video to explain the new system to Minneapolis residents in 2013, the first year the city used RCV:

Maine is an example of the potential pitfalls of the traditional voting system. Facing independent and Democratic opponents in 2010, the state’s Republican Gov. Paul LePage won the governor’s mansion with just 37.6 percent of the vote in 2010. Four years later, LePage won re-election with 48.2 percent of the vote.

The state’s affinity for independent politicians and multi-party races led to a successful ballot referendum in 2016 to establish RCV for state elections. But following a non-binding court opinion that RCV is unconstitutional for some state positions, Maine’s legislature decided to delay the implementation of the law to 2021.

This set off a ballot drive for what’s called a “people’s veto,” in which voters can, by referendum, overrule the legislature. Maine’s secretary of state will soon review and certify the signatures activists turned in to activate the people’s veto.

If the people’s veto is certified, Maine’s voters will use RCV in June in the Democratic and Republican primaries for the congressional and gubernatorial races. They will also get a chance to weigh in on whether they will continue to use RCV in the future.

Kyle Bailey, campaign manager for Maine’s Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, told The Intercept earlier this year that the June experiment will help expand support for electoral reform. “I think voters exercising more voice and more choice by having the power to rank candidates will only intensify their support for this electoral change,” he said.

There is also a push by a small group of House Democrats to require RCV in congressional elections. Virginia Democratic Rep. Don Beyer is working with others to pass the Fair Representation Act, which would establish multi-member districts, require all congressional districts to be drawn by independent redistricting commissions, and require all districts to use RCV.

In an interview with The Intercept last year, California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna suggested that legislation could ultimately move America away from two-party dominance.

“The challenge is how do we get that kind of thinking that we need to challenge incumbency and we need to challenge the two-party system in a Congress where everyone has bought into that system?” Khanna said. “That’s where I think Don Beyer showed I think extraordinary courage in introducing this bill. The only way that change is going to come is if we have the grassroots citizens start to demand that change.”

Of course, in politics, ensuring that a winner receives the majority of the population’s votes is a little different than in movies. There are good reasons to not want a governor who received only 38 percent of the vote: They would not be representative of the population.

But for the Oscars, there maybe be at least one downside. Less controversial films tend to benefit from the ranked-choice system, because they can build the most consensus among votes after the first preference.

Top photo: Actress Brie Larson, winner of the Best Actress award for “Room,” attends the 88th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on Feb. 28, 2016 in Hollywood, Calif.

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