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What the Oscars Can Teach Us About Elections That Work

Academy Award-winners are selected by algorithms that allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference, selecting backups if their first choices lose. What if we elected our leaders that way?

Oscars photo by Adarsh Upadhyay

With traditional governance in Washington grinding to a halt and with election campaigns often shutting out alternative perspectives, a growing number of Americans resent the constraints of our dominant two-choice, two-party voting system. It contributes directly to political gamesmanship inside the Beltway, reinforces the power of political insiders and restricts the impact of independent candidates and voters because voters are discouraged from backing their preferred candidates when not seen as “viable.”

So where can we turn for answers? Surprisingly, part of the answer lies in Hollywood.

Starting with the 2009 Best Picture, the Academy of Motion Pictures and the Producers Guild of America have been using a better voting method: ranked choice voting (RCV, which is also called “instant runoff voting” and “preferential voting”). It builds on the choice voting rules used since the1930s to choose nominees in nearly all categories. As a result, nearly all Academy voters help play a role in selecting the winners.

In 2009, the Academy decided to nominate more than the typical five movies for Best Picture. But with up to ten movies on the final ballot, it wanted to make sure the final winner was representative of majority opinion among Academy voters: with a simple plurality vote, a less popular movie could win with as little as 12 percent support.

Enter ranked choice voting. You can see how RCV works in FairVote Minnesota’s short video (below) that explains how the system works with a true “change” election. (It’s a nifty educational tool for the use of RCV in the mayoral elections in Minneapolis and St. Paul this fall.)

Here's how it works:

In the Best Picture election, Academy voters didn’t vote for just one movie. They gained the power to rank the nine nominated movies from their favorite to least favorite in order of preference, from one to nine. Those rankings were tallied according to an “American Idol” kind of algorithm. Every voter had one vote, and their ballot never counted for more than one movie at a time. But their rankings allowed them to help elect a backup choice if their first choice couldn’t win.

With a field of nine strong movies that all had strong advocates, Argo almost certainly was not the first choice of more than half the voters. As a result, lower rankings were used in a series of “instant runoffs.”

A movie will need to do well enough in first choices to stay in the running, but also keep building support as weaker movies are eliminated.

In each round of counting, the movie with the fewest votes was eliminated, and that movie’s backers had their votes added to the totals of their next ranked choice. These instant runoffs continued until Argo won with a majority of the vote against the remaining movies. You can see how it might have gone with this round-by-round example from The Washington Post, which created a fun online tool allowing you to rank the movies, then showed the results.

RCV ensures that the Best Picture Oscar won’t go to a movie that might lead in first choices, but which most voters see as undeserving. Instead, a movie will need to do well enough in first choices to stay in the running, but also keep building support as weaker movies are eliminated. The winning movie will be more likely to be the consensus choice.

What Oscar Can Teach Us About Choosing Leaders

Oscar elections are headline-grabbing, but what’s even more exciting is the prospect of similar changes in the way we choose our elected leaders. There, RCV can have a truly transformational impact, upholding majority rule and encouraging fair consideration of third parties by addressing the spoiler problem (famously illustrated by Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign, which helped tip the race away from Al Gore).

RCV has been used to elect Australia’s house of representatives for nearly a century.

RCV is still a winner-take-all voting system. As a result, it doesn’t represent political minorities as a fair voting system of proportional representation (for that reform, see our fair voting plans). But RCV allows longshot candidates to make their case—and to demonstrate their real levels of support—without results being skewed by fears of spoiling elections.

RCV is a proven system, and has been used to elect Australia’s House of Representatives for nearly a century. In 2007, Australian House races had an average of seven candidates, including small parties like the Greens running in every district. With RCV, no one complained about “spoilers.” Instead, the Greens have increased their vote, gaining more influence in the electoral process, and with fair voting rules for the Senate, turning that increased vote share into seats.

60 colleges and universities now elect student leaders with RCV.

Here in the United States, cities electing mayors with RCV include St. Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota; Oakland, San Francisco, and two other California cities; Maine’s largest city, Portland; and a few other cities in Maryland, North Carolina, and Colorado. Voters in Memphis, Sarasota, and Santa Fe have approved it on the ballot and are awaiting implementation. Some 60 colleges and universities now elect student leaders with RCV, as do many large associations like the American Political Science Association.

It’s only a matter of time before we see a statewide win for RCV.  One particularly strong state effort is in Maine, where eight of the past ten gubernatorial races were won with less than half the vote. With Democrats finishing third in the 2010 governor’s race and 2012 Senate race, a major party is getting a taste of the“ spoiler” epithet so often hurled at minor parties. New legislation to adopt RCV for governor and other state offices is backed by dozens of state legislators from across the spectrum.

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Such advances will help us get over perhaps the biggest hurdle faced by advocates: current voting machines not making it easy to implement RCV. Fortunately, the newest paper-based systems are starting to add readiness to use RCV as an option. Once that’s the norm, jurisdictions can debate RCV without uncertainty about how to implement it.

Of course, RCV is not the only election reform that’s necessary; other ideas for fairer elections are also generating energy and excitement. Efforts to overturn Citizens United have breathed new life into campaign finance reform drives, the filibuster rule in the Senate looks increasingly vulnerable, universal voter registration is gaining growing support, and the National Popular Vote plan for president continues its state-by-state progress toward effectively sidelining the Electoral College.

Change breeds change, and we believe the 2010s promise to be a decade of reform. In this case, Hollywood is setting an example we all can follow.


Rob Richie wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Rob is the executive director of FairVote, a nonprofit organization that researches and advocates election reforms that increase voter turnout, accountable governance, and fair representation.

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