Wednesday 17 February 2010

The Oscars adopt the Alternative Vote

Hurrah for Hollywood! The Vote for a Change campaign for electoral reform has received an unlikely but welcome boost with news that you will need 50% support to win the Best Picture Oscar as Hollywood adopts the Alternative Vote system this year.

The House of Commons last week voted by 365 votes to 187 (a majority of 178) in favour of a referendum on whether to change to the Alternative Vote being held by 2011.

Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker explains the Oscars' switch:

From 1946 until last year, the voting worked the way Americans are most familiar with. Five pictures were nominated. If you were a member of the Academy, you put an “X” next to the name of your favorite. The picture with the most votes won. Nice and simple, though it did mean that a movie could win even if a solid majority of the eligible voters — in theory, as many as seventy-nine per cent of them — didn’t like it.

Those legendary PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants don’t release the totals, but this or something like it has to have happened in the past, probably many times.

This year, the Best Picture list was expanded, partly to make sure that at least a couple of blockbusters would be on it. (The biggest grosser of 2008, “The Dark Knight,” was one of the better Batman adventures, but it didn’t make the cut.) To forestall a victory for some cinematic George Wallace or Ross Perot, the Academy switched to a different system. Members — there are around fifty-eight hundred of them — are being asked to rank their choices from one to ten. In the unlikely event that a picture gets an outright majority of first-choice votes, the counting’s over. If not, the last-place finisher is dropped and its voters’ second choices are distributed among the movies still in the running. If there’s still no majority, the second-to-last-place finisher gets eliminated, and its voters’ second (or third) choices are counted. And so on, until one of the nominees goes over fifty per cent.

The Oscars therefore join the X factor (as well as all of our political parties when selecting leaders and candidates) in deciding that preferential voting is the fairest way to pick a winner with most support. The "Jedward objection" to first-past-the-post was argued by Martin Linton in the Commons voting reform debate last week.

Are ten nominations too many for best picture at the Oscars? Certainly not in 1939, perhaps the greatest ever year of the Hollywood movie. In 2010, the argument could be made either way. Still, the recognition that the voting system needs to change to get a fair result when there is a greater pluralism of choices makes sense in Hollywood - and beyond it.

If you need 50% of the vote to win something as trivial as an Oscar, might the same principle be applied to electing our MPs?

Hat tip: My brother for spotting the New Yorker piece. Its very well worth getting hold of the print edition (February 15th & 22nd)for the magnificent portfolio of veterans of the civil rights movement.


PS: James Purnell writes of greater political pluralism in the new Demos pamphlet 'We Mean Power, published today:

A majoritarian approach may have worked when the two main parties had 97 per cent of the vote, as they did in 1951. This approach is neither possible nor desirable now ... Those who are worried about moves to a more pluralist politics need to find something else to worry about - it has already happened. Whatever the rules of the game, the votes people are casting have made it so. The question is whether we can accomodate that pluralism within the system, or whether it gets expressed outside and against it.


Newmania said...

I take it that having bamboozled you way into a majority it will all be majoritarian when it comes to actually inflicting your progressive Reich on us act by majoritarian act

Unknown said...

Clearly an improvement, but for electing one film (or person or policy or whatever), Alternative Vote is possibly not the best. Once you have the voters' orders of preference, you can look to see if there is one candidate who would win head-to-head against each other candidate - a "Condorcet winner" (named after the French enlightenment philosopher). Almost always in practice there will be such a one, but it is possible to have "A beats B beats C beats A" (a "Condorcet paradox"), so you need a fallback mechanism, possibly AV, to break such a deadlock.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

Er, AV IS a majoritarian system. Indeed, it is majoritarian where FPTP is not.

On the plus side, if AV is simple enough for actors...