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.


awesome post, Wolfers. Extremely informative


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


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.


@ #2 Yes.


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.


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

William G

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.



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


Thank you #7 - this is what I was going to write, but you said it much better! If this is an economist's view, it can't be ignoring basic game theory! (I think we learned about Arrows theorem in maybe the fourth lecture of introductory game theory!) This leads to a really biased post: instant run off "strikes you as being fairer"? Can you give any economic justification for that? Perhaps there is, but it would be nice to acknowledge the weaknesses of your position and then give us a better reason to prefer it than it's what you're used to and you happen to like it!

Chris Telesca

Wolfers is wrong about our system. It's not all "First Past the Post" - many communities have a requirement for a 50% plus one vote majority. And if you don't get that in the general election, you have a runoff.

And Australian elections are not like US elections - we have more direct election of candidates and longer ballots. They don't do that in Australia, hence what works there might not work here.

Because of the compulsory voting in Australia and their IRV voting, you get people who vote for maybe one or two candidates they know, then they just start picking names that don't mean anything to them. That's called "donkey voting". And to anyone with half a brain, it can't be better and could be far worse than the system we have now because you'd have votes going to candidates you really know nothing about.

IRV does not ensure a majority winner in a single election - if you are honest about setting thresholds. In the majority of US elections using IRV, there is no winner who gets 50% plus one vote of the total number of first round votes. They mostly get a larger "plurality".

Real runoff elections are the way to go if you want a real majority. They allow the remaining candidates to ask for the support of the candidates who aren't in the race anymore - and ask for the votes of their supporters also., It gives the public a chance to take more time to examine the differences between the last two standing - which is much easier than trying to rank up to 12 people.

Also, IRV is a very complex method to count votes to determine a winner. Here in Cary NC, where they used IRV one time in 2007, even the "winner" of the race doesn't support IRV - because he knows the 1401 votes he got wasn't 50% plus one vote of the 3022 votes cast. One Town Councilor who supported IRV doesn't support it anymore because she doesn't have confidence in the counting procedures - which she and others watched in 2007.

Right now there is no federally certified voting equipment that will handle the many different IRV methods used in the US. There is movement by IRV's lead advocacy organization to use open-source code for tabulating IRV elections.

Funny thing is - they have an interest/alliances with two companies that either write IRV tabulating software or run IRV elections. And an alliance with an internet voting company. So you tell me if their pushing IRV for the great good - or for another reason?


Joyce McCloy

Bulington Vermont voters voted to repeal Instant Runoff Voting on March 2, 2010.

The Burlington "repeal irv blog" said this about the decision : "Being charmed by it (IRV) ideologically is quite different from experiencing how it twists the results of an election. "

The list of places that have rejected instant runoff voting grows as the reality of IRV sinks in:

Aspen Colorado, Cary North Carolina, Pierce County Washington, Burlington Vermont, the Utah Republican Party and even Georgetown University. San Francisco may be next as people get fed up and even now a lawsuit has been filed.


Is this the same system that left the 50% of rational Louisiana residents voting between a convicted felon and a Klan leader?


Not sure how this could possibly remove strategic voting. Using the example given above, if I preferred LA Confidential, I would list it as my favorite. Knowing that it would not win, however, I would then proceed to place As Good as It Gets in second place and Titanic as the last choice.

While I did vote my preference, the vote (as a whole) was no less strategic. Certainly a thought provoking post, if just for the logic analysis.


don't forget the none of the above vote!!- if NA wins, then new candidates must be fielded



The person that has the most #1 preference voters may lose, that's true- but if they do, it's because a majority of all the voters preferred someone other than that candidate.
So they probably wouldn't win in an U.S. style election either.

Anyways- don't expect an exhaustive study on something like voting game theory a blog post about the Oscars... Don't you think maybe your being a little overcritical?


Minnesota Public Radio produced a nice video about IRV -


I can't help but notice that William G says nothing nice about IRV. His blog comment is thus horribly biased.

Zahra Khan

Interesting point, commenter # 3.
Democracy requires effort!

On a side note, it turns out that in more developed countries, voter turnout in elections is often much lower than in developing countries.
At home in Canada, for example, I think this is because we have fewer things to complain about and hence, don't care as much about changing the government.


Adding to the already very informative comments before, I think there is strategic voting with IRV. Let's imagine a situation with a Condorcet's paradox, with 5 voters: the first voter prefers movie A to movie B to movie C. The second and the third voter prefers movie B to movie C to movie A. The fourth and the fifth voter prefers movie C to movie A to movie B.

Now, let's take the view of the fourth and fifth voters. If they vote sincerely, they know that, on the first round, movie A will be eliminated. On the second round, B will win (which is their - the fourth and fifth voter - least preferred option). Consequently, if they say their preferred order is A to C to B, movie A will win on the first round and they will be better off (given all the others are voting sincerely). In other words, it is not an equilibrium in this game to have everyone voting sincerely, and a big part of this result is a consequence of the Condorcet's paradox (and more generally, the Arrow's impossibility theorem).



Again: #2: yes.

Wolfers, I think your predictions are totally right. And I think the Hurt Locker should prevail over Avatar - or at least I hope so.