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
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
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