An Economist’s View of the New Oscar Voting

Sunday’s Oscar night will be different.? First, there are now ten nominees for best picture.? But perhaps more importantly,?the voting system has changed. Interested in figuring out how this changes the Oscar game???Here’s my best attempt at explaining to the folks from Film In Focus just how this new election math will work out:

Wolfers compares for me the benefits of the exhaustive preferential system by comparing it to our U.S. election system, which he calls “the first past the post” system. “In the U.S. system, there is one round, and whoever gets the most votes wins and we all go home.” The problem with this system, he says, is that “you have an incentive to not vote what you believe. Say you support Ralph Nader. Well, you think he is not going to get elected, so you vote a Republican or Democrat instead because that’s how you ‘make your vote count.’ In the ‘first past the post’ system, everyone identifies the two most likely top candidates and votes between them. It encourages strategic rather than sincere voting.”

In the instant runoff system, though, because ballots are constantly being recirculated rather than tossed out, and this knowledge by the voter should influence him or her to vote his real preference. So, just to take an example from the past, say that in 1998 voters concluded that the top Best Picture candidates, the ones most preferred by their fellow voters, would be?Titanic and?As Good As It Gets. A voter preferring another nominee, such as?L.A. Confidential, and who also hated?Titanic was theoretically encouraged not to vote for?L.A. Confidential but for the film most likely to compete against?Titanic -?As Good As It Gets. In this year’s system, however, because a voter can rank preference from top to bottom, he or she should not worry about a wasted vote. “The good thing about the instant runoff is that it provides strong incentives to vote sincerely,” says Wolfers. “It’s the least unfair system. It’s enfranchising. Think of the guy who votes for Ralph Nader. In the instant runoff, it comes down to two candidates and his preference still counts.”

I love the new system.? It’s how we elect politicians “back home” in Australia: it’s not as complicated as American journalists make it sound, and it strikes me as being fairer.? Perhaps once Oscar-watchers get used to the new system, we can use this to start a conversation about the best way to elect the next President.

And my tip?? Follow the prediction markets.? Right now, they suggest that the only close race is Best Picture, and the markets give a slight edge to The Hurt Locker, over Avatar. The other awards are easier picks:?Jeff Bridges will be best actor;?Sandra Bullock will be best actress (as much as I disliked her performance in The Blind Side);?Christoph Waltz is a lock to win best supporting actor;?Mo’Nique will surely win best supporting actress; and?Kathryn Bigelow will beat her?ex-husband to win best director.


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  1. AC says:

    awesome post, Wolfers. Extremely informative

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  2. Terry says:

    Katherine Bigelow used to be married to James Cameron?!? Did everyone else know this other than me?

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  3. Pavis says:

    I say let’s give this preferential voting a try.

    Not by any means I’m familiar with Australian politics and electoral process, but I wonder if you have to rank your candidates from 1 to 10, a la Oscar? That sounds like a lot of work. A discentive to casting your vote?

    PS – What’s your opinion on Sandra Bullock’s performance? I love it. Fierce and feisty. And I heard she’s a Democrat.

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  4. Zack says:

    @ #2 Yes.

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  5. Hughes says:

    In response to Pavis, Australia also has compulsory attendance at polling stations (on the threat of a fine). Some people mistake this for compulsory voting but the reality is that once poised with pencil in hand you can do what you want including nothing. You don’t have to vote.

    That said, the rate of informal voting (people screwing up, deliberately or otherwise) is very low in Australia. Preferential voting is really pretty straightforward. I’ve also been an election scrutineer in Oz and counting the bits of paper happens remarkably quickly. Much less of a hassle than US voting machines seem to be.

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  6. bob74 says:

    @Terry Yes, I think by this point it is pretty well known that Bigelow and Cameron were married in the past.

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  7. William G says:

    This is an overly simplistic representation of the economic theory behind voting, and it is certainly biased toward showing IRV positively. Obviously there isn’t enough time on this blog to go into all of the depth of voting systems, because there is some serious game theory going on, but perhaps some links to other resources (Wikipedia) might have been nice.

    Every voting system has its strengths and weaknesses. If you come up with a set of criteria to decide whether a voting system is good or bad, you cannot fulfill them all with one system. This is known as Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem.

    You don’t have to get into all the game theory and mathematics behind voting systems to understand why there are strengths and weaknesses to each system. All you have to do is think through some of the edge cases to realize what its weaknesses are.

    Wolfers was willing to mention the weakness of the current US election system, in that it’s hard to get a 3rd party elected (people don’t want to ‘waste their vote’), but he didn’t mention the weaknesses of IRV. I won’t exhaust everyone with the details–you can think about it yourself or look it up–but the major weakness of IRV is that it can fail to choose the option that is preferred by a majority to every other option in the field.

    This is supposed to be Freakonomics. We’re supposed to look at things in a new light. That’s going to be hard to do if you can’t (honestly) look at well known things in the proper light. This blog needs to stop pushing agendas so much–they were much more intellectually honest with the information in the books.

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  8. mary says:

    Is the new system in effect for all awards, or just Best Pic?

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