Authored on March 11, 2010

Minnesota Public Radio, Commentary, March 12, 2010

By Lynnell Mickelsen

On Sunday night, in addition to

sweeping the Oscars with

six Academy Awards, "The Hurt


quietly won yet another distinction: It was the first film

to win "Best Picture" as the result of ranked

choice voting

Yeah, I know. This little detail

kind of got lost in all the celebrity gown coverage. But still, Sunday's

awards marked the prime time Oscar debut of a voting system whose time

may have come.

The Academy switched to ranked

choice voting, or RCV, for Best Picture for the same reason most cities

and groups use it: It's the fairest way to pick a winner when more than

two choices are on the ballot.

This year, 10 films were up for Best

Picture. So if Academy members had been able to pick only one, it would

have been technically possible for a movie to win with only 11 percent

of the vote. Put another way, a film that 89 percent of the voters did

not pick could have won Best Picture, a scenario the Academy was

determined to avoid.

A "spoiler" winning Best Picture

could tick off movie fans, undermine the Oscar's credibility and dent

its ability to rake in cash. (Analysts say winning Best Picture can

typically add $20 million to $40 million to a film's box office


So the Academy switched to ranked

choice voting, a century-old system used for local elections in

Minneapolis, San Francisco, London, Ireland and Australia, and coming

soon to St. Paul, Memphis and Springfield, Ill. Duluth is considering

it. Robert's Rules of Order

recommends it. In short, RCV is hardly some new, whackadoodle idea.

Critics always bewail how

complicated RCV is, in terms of both voting and counting. But the

math-phobic Hollywood crowd apparently handled it, and PriceWaterhouseCooper

accountants seemed unruffled as always. Here's how they say it worked:

The 6,000 or so voting members of

the Academy received ballots with 10 films listed and ranked their

favorites from 1 to 10. Or, if they didn't feel that ambitious, from 1

to 5 or 1 to 3. The ballots ultimately ended up in the famed windowless,

secret room where the accountants made 10 piles, one for each film. In

each pile, they put all the ballots that ranked that film No. 1. The

smallest pile was eliminated and all the #2 choices from those ballots

were redistributed to the remaining films.

This process allowed people to

freely vote for the film they were most passionate about. They didn't

have to worry about "wasting" "their vote on, say, "A Serious Man" and

thus giving Best Picture to, say, "Avatar," the big

sci-fi blockbuster that Hollywood people either love or hate.

The process kept going for however

many rounds it took for "The Hurt Locker" to come up with 51 percent or

more of the ballots. (We don't know the actual numbers because the

Academy always treats the actual tallies -- whether it's RCV or the old

way -- like some nuclear secret and never releases them.) And then, ta

da! We had a winner. And not just any old winner. We had a film that was

truly the top choice or a top choice of the majority of voters.

Whether that's a good thing depends

on how you feel about "The Hurt Locker" ... or consensus rule in

general. Ranked choice voting favors the movie -- or ideology or

candidate -- that has majority approval. So how people feel about RCV

usually depends on whether they believe their movie -- or ideology or

candidate -- could eventually win 51 percent or more of the vote.

Here in Minnesota, the DFL,

Independence, Libertarian and Green Parties all support RCV, while our

current Republicans mostly oppose it. Each group can list noble reasons

pro and con. But the bottom line is that no political party supports a

voting system under which it can't win. So the Republican opposition

could be seen as a lack of confidence about whether 51 percent or more

of Minnesotans share their ideology.

Which leads to some deeper

questions: Does majority rule really matter? Is it necessary for a

healthy democracy or government? Does consensus usually make for better


In the case of this year's Best

Picture, the answer probably depends on whether you liked "The Hurt


In the case of Minnesota, where the governor's race has been thrice won

with less than 50 percent of the vote, the answer probably depends on

whether you think Minnesota is better off after one term of Jesse

Ventura followed by two terms of Tim Pawlenty.

"Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people

are right more than half the time," wrote E.B.

White. Ranked choice voting is based on the same suspicion. I'd love

to see Minnesota follow the Oscars' lead and try it statewide.


Lynnell Mickelsen is a Minneapolis