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The Oscar for Best Voting System Goes To...

There's a new method for choosing Best Picture this year: instant runoff voting, a system that would also make political elections more fair.
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Gone With the Wind film still

In 1939, the Academy of Motion Pictures used instant runoff voting to select from ten strong Best Picture contenders, including The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Of Mice and Men. Gone with the Wind was the consensus choice.

A growing number of Americans resent the constraints of our dominant two-choice, two-party electoral system. It contributes to political gamesmanship in Washington, reinforces the power of established parties, and restricts the impact of independent candidates and voters, since voters are encouraged to choose “the lesser of two evils” rather than their preferred candidate.

So where can we turn? Surprisingly, part of the answer lies in Hollywood. The Academy of Motion Pictures and the Producers Guild of America are using a new method for selecting 2009’s Best Picture: instant runoff voting.

Last year, the Academy decided to nominate ten movies for best picture rather than five, as it did until 1943. But it wanted to make sure the final winner was representative of majority opinion among Academy voters—theoretically, an unpopular movie could still win a simple plurality vote if only eleven percent of voters picked it.

Enter instant runoff voting (IRV, also known as ranked choice voting). Academy voters this year ranked the ten nominated movies from their favorite to least favorite in order of preference, one to ten. Those rankings are being tallied according to an “American Idol” kind of algorithm. Every voter has one and only one vote, but they indicate their backup choices in case their first choice can’t win. In each round, the movie with the fewest votes is eliminated, and that movie’s backers have their vote added to the totals of their next ranked choice. This continues in a series of “instant runoffs” until the winner gains a majority of votes.

For the Oscars, that means the best picture won’t go to a movie that might lead in first choices, but which most Oscar 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. At the end of the day, the winning movie will be more likely to be the consensus choice.

Oscar elections are headline-grabbing—the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today (with an interactive animation) all ran profiles of the Oscars’ use of IRV—but what’s even more exciting is the prospect of similar changes in the way we choose our elected leaders. There, IRV can have a truly transformational impact, ensuring that a majority of voters actually support winning candidates and encouraging the growth of third parties by solving the spoiler problem (most famously illustrated by Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign, which tipped the race away from Al Gore).

IRV is still a winner-take-all voting system that doesn’t represent political minorities; it won’t fully provide the fair representation we should keep fighting for. But IRV does allow darkhorse candidates a chance to make their case—and to demonstrate their real levels of support, without results being skewed by fears of spoiling elections.

It’s a proven system: major cities such as Oakland, Minneapolis, and Memphis use it, pro-IRV laws have passed in North Carolina and Colorado, and many major private associations use it, including student governments at nearly 60 college and universities.

City councils in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Leandro, California recently voted to implement IRV in their November elections, including a highly competitive mayoral vote in Oakland. San Francisco will also hold its seventh IRV election, and with other California cities—including Los Angeles, Long Beach, and San Jose—seriously talking about IRV, a change in statewide elections may soon be within reach. IRV has also made headway in Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, and Minnesota at both the city and state level.

IRV is gaining proponents around the world. It has been used for decades to elect leaders in Ireland and Australia. In February, the British House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to hold a national referendum in 2011 on adopting IRV (there called "the alternative vote") for its elections. The bill has to pass the House of Lords, but if it does, the United Kingdom will join New Zealand in allowing voters to decide how to elect their most powerful leaders (in the 1990s, New Zealanders voted to use proportional representation; in a referendum to take place next year they will choose between that system and IRV).

IRV has had to play defense as well. Frustrated losers in mayoral and county executive races in Pierce County, Washington, Burlington, Vermont, and Aspen, Colorado all led efforts in the past year to repeal IRV. With a state law change solving the “spoiler” issue in a different way in Pierce County, voters there repealed IRV in 2009. In Burlington, IRV was repealed by a narrow margin in a low turnout race that many saw as a referendum on an unpopular mayor who had been the only candidate ever to win an IRV election there.

Of course, IRV is not the only election reform that’s necessary; other ideas for fairer elections are also generating energy and excitement. Following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which opened the door for huge increases in corporate spending in politics, broad and influential coalitions working toward constitutional change. Meanwhile, 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 the 2010s are promising to be a decade of reform. Stay tuned on Oscar night!


Rob RichieRob 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 non-profit organization that researches and advocates election reforms that increase voter turnout, accountable governance, and fair representation.

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