oscars 2019

Let’s Argue About the Preferential Ballot

Peter Farrelly accepts Green Book’s Best Picture win. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

When an election doesn’t go the way you want, it’s tempting to second-guess the process behind it, to search for a better way of voting that would have expressed the true will of the people (which is, of course, whatever you hoped would happen). So it is after Green Book’s Best Picture win Sunday night, which has some observers wondering if the Academy should change its methodology, even if they aren’t quite sure what that methodology is.

I’ve noticed that detailed knowledge of the Oscars’ preferential ballot is one thing that separates awards obsessives from the general populace, so if you’re one of the latter, here’s a quick primer: Unlike the other 23 categories, in which everyone votes for their fave and the person with the most votes wins, in Best Picture Academy members rank the nominees in order of preference (though they don’t have to list them all). In the likely scenario that no movie gets 50 percent of the first-place votes, the movie with the fewest first-place votes is thrown out of the running, and its votes are redistributed to the No. 2 movies on each ballot, and so on and so on, until one movie gets to the 50 percent threshold.

The preferential ballot came about with the expanded Best Picture field a decade ago, for good reason; with so many nominees, a movie otherwise could have won Best Picture by nabbing a mere 15 percent of the vote. It’s had the side effect of turning political-science junkies into Oscars fans for a few weeks every year, as ranked-choice voting is one of the pet projects for good-government types, who see it as a fairer way of reflecting the opinions of the electorate. Similar methods are used in a bunch of municipalities across the country, and I personally think the U.K.’s current dilemma could be solved by asking voters to rank a no-deal Brexit, a Brexit under the Theresa May deal, and no Brexit after all — but what do I know?

The preferential ballot is generally credited as the reason behind recent Best Picture wins for 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight, but there’s no way of telling for sure, since the Academy doesn’t release voting data. That has the effect of letting anyone read whatever they like into the results. One studio head told THR’s Scott Feinberg that Green Book likely would have prevailed even in a first-past-the-post system, but Team Roma has come away from Sunday’s ceremony with the impression that it might have been able to win if not for the preferential ballot. The logic seems to track: With many voters anxious over Netflix’s effect on the Hollywood ecosystem, Roma turned out to be the more polarizing option in the race, despite the reverse being true online.

Since Green Book’s win, the preferential ballot is back under the microscope. As The Atlantic’s David Sims has noted, the new way of voting has tended to produce consensus picks of a similar mold: mid-budget, mildly successful adult fare that’s usually remembered solely for winning Best Picture. Before this year, there hadn’t been a Crash-level controversy, but there haven’t been too many gigantic hits or staggering artistic achievements, either. The Shape of Water, which beat Get Out, Lady Bird, and Call Me by Your Name without anyone getting too mad about it, seems like a typical preferential-ballot choice, though since it won Director, too, who can really say.

What would the past decade of Best Picture winners have looked like without the preferential ballot? If we do the thought experiment of assuming that the Best Director winner also got the most top votes in Picture — the two categories overlapped much more frequently before the switch — we’d have La La Land instead of Moonlight, The Revenant instead of Spotlight, Gravity instead of 12 Years a Slave. That’s a spicier lineup, but you’d be hard-pressed to call it markedly better.

While there are plenty of ways to reform our actual voting system, this week’s drama over Green Book’s win is a sign that even the most enlightened processes can create controversial results. The preferential ballot often rewards polite, middlebrow fare because, well, voters themselves prefer polite, middlebrow fare. (If they didn’t, they’d be at the Indie Spirits.) Failing the possibility of dissolving the Academy and electing another, we’re just going to have to live with their choices, no matter how they choose them.

Let’s Argue About the Preferential Ballot