Oscars mystery solved: How nomination ballots (except for Best Picture) are counted

Voting for Oscar nominations begins on Dec. 29 and runs through Jan. 8, with nominations announced on Jan. 15. Ballots will be available online or put in the post for those of the 6,124 academy members who requested this method.

While the Best Picture nominees are determined by a complicated counting method which we explained in detail here, the contenders in acting, directing, writing and the craft categories (except makeup/hairstyling and visual effects) will be selected under the preferental system that has been in place for years.

To illustrate how that system works, let’s apply it to last year’s Best Actor race. 

Between our Experts, Editors and Users, 2,219 nomination ballots were cast for Best Actor. As per the preferential system, we sorted these ballots by first choice and only those men listed at the top of at least one ballot continued on in the process. (The Actors branch of the academy has 1,150 members.)

There are five nominees for Best Actor. In our scenario, the initial threshold for a nomination was set at 370 votes (i.e., 2,219 divided by 6 and rounded up). If each of five fellows reaches this cut-off, they will account for 1,850 votes, making it mathematically impossible for a sixth actor to get more than 369 votes. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”) had 1,342 first place votes and Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”) had 535. Therefore, both earn a bid (as they did in the actual nominations). Usually, these ballots would be set to one side at this point.

However, each of these newly minted nominees was so popular that they reaped at least 20% more first place votes than needed to be nominated — in our scenario that is 414 votes  — and triggered the surplus rule (Best Picture balloting uses a 10% excess to trigger the surplus rule). The rationale for this rule is to ensure that someone can vote for a hugely popular contender without fear that their ballot doesn’t matter. 

When this happens, the ballots for this nominee are apportioned as follows: a share goes to the nominee such that they reach the threshold and the remaining share goes to the actor below him on the ballot who is still in the running and not yet nominated. 

Ejiofor only needed 370 first-place votes to reach the initial threshold so each of his 1,342 votes is apportioned with .28 of the vote going to him and .72 to the actor listed in second place, assuming he got at least one first-place vote from someone to remain eligible and is not already deemed to be a nominee. Those fractional votes are the equivalent of 966 ballots in all. Likewise, with McConaughey, .69 of each of his votes will be counted in his column while .31 will go to someone further down the ballot putting the equivalent of another 166 ballots in play. 

Because Ejiofor and McConaughey are already deemed to be nominees, neither needed the fractional votes they would be entitled to under the surplus rule. Therefore, any ballot that listed them in the top two slots, in either order, would see part of their vote going to the actor in the third position (assuming hhe got at least one first-place vote from someone to remain eligible.) 

Perhaps this was when eventual nominee Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) who had 85 votes, picked up enough fractional votes to reach the initial threshold of 370. If so, those ballots would be set aside as well. [Two other men — early frontrunner Robert Redford (“All is Lost”) and Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips”) had 94 and 33 first-place votes respectively but neither reaped a bid in real-life.]

And so ends round one with three of the five slots filled. 

UPDATED: Experts’ Oscars predictions in 22 categories

Before beginning round two, a new second threshold needs to be calculated based on the ballots still in the process and the number of nominees still left to be determined.

We started with 2,219 ballots and have removed 1,862 [1,342 (Ejiofor), 535 (McConaughey) and 85 (DiCaprio)] leaving 357.

As there are two spots left, we divide 357 by three and round up giving us a new second threshold of 120. If two actors each got this many votes they would account for 240 votes, leaving only 117 in play. No actor still in the running had this many votes on his own.

Let’s assume Bruce Dern (“Nebraska”), who had 79 votes of his own, received enough of the fractional votes from the surplus rule applied to those ballots listing Ejiofor or McConaughey first to reach this new threshold to become the fourth nominee, as he was in actuality.

Before beginning round three, a new third threshold is calculated. We removed Dern’s 79 ballots leaving 278. With one spot left, we divide 278 by two and round up for a new third threshold of 140. If one actor achieves this, there will only be 138 votes in play. 

At this point, the accountants redistribute the ballots of the actor with the fewest first-place votes to the next actor further down on the ballot who is still in search of a nomination.

The accountants look on each of these ballots for the next highest-ranked actor still in the running. This will be done with the ballots of each actor who has the least first-place votes until someone reaches the new threshold of 140.

The eventual fifth nominee was Christian Bale (“American Hustle”). 

See latest Oscar rankings when Experts’ predictions are combined

While the Best Picture winner is determined by a version of this preferential system, the winners of the other races are those that top the popular vote — i.e, a voter picks just one of the nominees and the Oscar goes to the that nominee with the most votes.

What are your Oscar predictions? Make your picks now — click here — or scroll down to predict the Best Actor champ using our easy drag-and-drop menu. Best predictions will win $1,000 prize. And the 24 Users with the best scores advance to a team to compete against our Experts and Editors next year. See who’s in our current Top 24 and their early Oscar predictions. Meet the guy who won our contest to predict Oscar nominations last year — and learn how he did it and how you can be our next Gold Derby superstar. Register/log in to your account so you can also compete to predict the Golden Globes, Grammys, “The Walking Dead,” “AHS: Freak Show” and more.

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