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The Oscars voting system

By Robert Alstead - Posted on 08 January 2008

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ballot system is still done in the same way as it was in 1936 - by hand.

This is a description of how the Academy decides Oscar-winners.

It comes from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accountancy firm that handles the balloting process:

The Oscar Awards ceremony

"The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences uses a preferential voting system in the nomination phase of balloting. The Academy's Board of Governors adopted this system in 1936 to ensure that every voter has an opportunity to influence the results. The system was designed for elections in which there will be more than one winner - e.g. five Oscar nominees in a category.

Each voter receives a ballot to indicate their top five choices in the relevant category(ies). When the PricewaterhouseCoopers team makes their initial count, they sort the ballots by first-place choices.

An initial numerical standard, or "magic" number, needed for nomination is then determined. This number is calculated by dividing the total number of ballots by the number six - i.e., the number of possible nominees (five) plus one.

A particular achievement must receive at least one first-place vote to stay in the counting.

In the second pass, the PricewaterhouseCoopers' ballot counters ignore all ballots on which the first-place choice has already secured a nomination, thus reducing the magic number. The reasoning is that once a voter's voice has been heard, he/she retires from the process.

The tabulators then go to the remaining ballots and count second choices, then third, and so on. Again, each time a ballot is used to vote for a candidate who has made the grade, that ballot is removed from further consideration.

In this way, every vote can be influential. The objective of the preferential voting system is to integrate the choices of individual members so as to produce nominees that express as closely as possible the collective judgment of the members.

In summary, the preferential voting system is optimal for elections having more than one winner, such as the selection of multiple nominees, and provides the fairest opportunity for an individual voter to have an influence in the outcome.

After the nominations have been announced, the final voting process is simple: the nominee receiving the most votes wins.

As a precautionary measure, two complete sets of envelopes bearing the recipients' names are prepared and brought by the two PricewaterhouseCoopers partners to the ceremony via separate, secret routes.

As a secondary precautionary measure, the PricewaterhouseCoopers partners also memorize the names of the respective award winners.

Identities of Oscar recipients are kept strictly confidential until they are announced during the live telecast, during which Oltmanns and Rosas remain backstage and hand the envelopes to award presenters immediately before they walk onstage.

Crunching the numbers

420,000+: The approximate number of ballots counted by PricewaterhouseCoopers in 73 years on the job.
2,449: The number of winners' envelopes stuffed since the envelope system was introduced in 1941.
1,700: The approximate number of "person-hours" it takes the PricewaterhouseCoopers team every year to count and verify the ballots by hand.
73: The number of years PricewaterhouseCoopers has conducted the Oscar balloting.
55: The number of broadcasts PricewaterhouseCoopers' partners have appeared on since 1953 - the year the Oscars were first televised.
24: The number of awards categories tabulated at a secret location known only to the members of the small PricewaterhouseCoopers ballot team.
7: The number of days it takes to count the ballots for nominations.
3: The number of days it takes to count the final ballots