Voting Rules for Best Picture nominations

The Academy Award nominations were announced this morning, and there was a big surprise: Dreamgirls, which was a Golden Globe winner and an early favorite to win the statuette, did not even receive a nomination. How could this happen? Let’s turn to Rule 17 of the 79th Academy Awards Rules:

1. A Reminder List of all eligible pictures shall be sent with a nominations ballot to all active and life members of the Academy who shall vote in the order of their preference for not more than five productions.

2. The five pictures receiving the highest number of votes shall become the nominations for final voting for the Best Picture Award.

I’m puzzled. Rule 17(1) instructs voters to “vote in the order of their preference,” but Rule 17(2) seems to indicate that order of preference is irrelevant. Perhaps the language “receiving the highest number of votes” masks some unrevealed process for taking preference into account, but I’ll assume that this is not the case.

What then might have happened to Dreamgirls? Some voters might have reasoned that they ought not waste their votes on movies that they saw as sure to get nominations, like Babel, The Departed, and Dreamgirls, seeking to maximize their influence by focusing on the marginal contenders. If some number of voters miscalculated the strength of Dreamgirls and reasoned this way, the movie could have lost a nomination that it would have won if all voters voted honestly.

What’s the remedy for this? Some kind of preferential voting system might help. There is no perfect system; the Gibbard-Satterthwaite Theorem tells us that any voting rule either must be dictatorial, rule out some candidates altogether, or provide some incentive for voters to reveal preferences other than their true ones. (The Theorem concerns votes to pick a single winner, but we can derive a corollary applying to elections with multiple winners, by recognizing that at some point the algorithm must identify the last-place winner.) Nonetheless, that should not blind us to the fact that some systems may do better than others. At least, we should hope for a system that identifies Condorcet winners when they exist.

Of course, imperfections in picking the nominees may not matter much. Dreamgirls probably wouldn’t have won Best Picture anyway. But the Oscars uses plurality voting for Best Picture as well, and this creates additional difficulties. The system may well maximize something more important than justice: entertainment value. But it’s a bit depressing that our voting regimes for public officials aren’t much better.

UPDATE: One of the commenters cites an article indicating that in fact there is a system for taking into account stated preference. It’s a little mysterious that the official rules don’t mention it. In any event, if you read the article, you’ll see that the preference aggregation approach isn’t a very good one. Voters who understand it should never put their first choice first if they’re pretty confident that it will be nominated anyway, because once your ballot helps to get a film nominated, it isn’t reused.

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5 Responses

  1. Matt Bodie says:

    I’d need more data before calling this an allocation-of-preferences failure; perhaps it’s instead a prediction-market failure. Most critics have been lukewarm on the movie, other than Jennifer Hudson’s and Eddie Murphy’s performances. Perhaps the voters liked aspects of the movie but really didn’t think it deserved a best pic nomination. I’ve seen the “waste-my-vote” argument in the past, but I’ve never seen it knock out an actual favorite.

  2. Actually, this reminds me of the recent voting for the baseball hall of fame. I did a lot of growing up just outside Baltimore, so the only shocker in the voting was that five ballots did not include his name. One voter’s public explanation was exactly what you’re talking about. “Of course Cal would get in, so I don’t have to vote for him.”

  3. “But it’s a bit depressing that our voting regimes for public officials aren’t much better.”

    Hey, I’m not happy with the new Pelosi-Reid tandem either but I think it’s unseemly for people like us to blame “our voting regimes”.

  4. Laura says:

    Michael, I’m happy to see that you’re using your legal & intellectual firepower to address the inner workings of Academy Awards voting system. If only more law profs did this, we might eventually be quoted in the most important of publications–U.S. Weekly! Or even, dare I dream, People?