We are just hours away from the close of the first phase of Oscar voting. Nomination ballots must be complete online or delivered to the academy by 5 pm PT/8 pm ET. Voting began last Thursday (Jan. 5) and nominations for the 89th annual Academy Awards will be announced 11 days from now on Tuesday, Jan. 24
While the Best Picture nominees are determined by a complicated counting method, the contenders in acting, directing, writing and the craft categories (except makeup/hairstyling and visual effects) will be selected under the preferential system that has been in place for years.
To illustrate how that system works, let’s apply it to last year’s Academy Awards race for Best Actress.
Between our experts (journalists who cover this beat year-round), website editors and readers like you, we cast 3,346 nomination ballots for Best Actress. (The actors branch of the academy had 1,138 members.) As per the preferential system, we sorted these ballots by first choice and only those women listed at the top of at least one ballot continued on in the process.
There are five nominees for Best Actress. In our scenario, the initial threshold — i.e., magic number — for a nomination was set at 558 votes (i.e., 3,346 divided by 6 and rounded up). If each of five women reaches this cut-off, they will account for 2,790 votes, making it mathematically impossible for a sixth actor to get more than 556 votes.
Brie Larson (“Room”) had 2,352 first place votes and earned a bid (as she did in the actual nominations). Usually, these ballots would be set to one side at this point.
However, this newly minted nominee was so popular that she reaped at least 20% more first place votes than needed to be nominated — in our scenario that is 670 votes — thus triggering the surplus rule (Best Picture balloting invokes the surplus rule with 10% excess). 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 needed number for a nomination and the remaining share goes to the actress below her on the ballot who is still in the running and not yet nominated.
Larson only needed 558 first-place votes to reach the initial threshold so each of her 2,352 votes is apportioned with .237 of the vote staying with her and .763 to the actress listed in second place, assuming she 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 1,794 ballots in all.
Perhaps this was when Cate Blanchett (“Carol”) who had 334 votes initially, picked up enough fractional votes to reach the initial threshold of 558. If so, those ballots would be set aside as well. Likewise for Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”) who had 146 votes at the outset.
And so ends round one with three of the five slots filled.
Before beginning round two, a new second threshold needs to be calculated based on the ballots remaining in the process and the number of nominees still left to be determined.
We started with 3,346 ballots and have removed 2,832 [2,352 (Larson), 334 (Blanchett) and 146 (Ronan)] leaving 514.
As there are two spots left, we divide 514 by three and round up giving us a new second threshold of 172. If two actresses each got this many votes they would account for 348 votes, leaving only 170 in play. No actress still in the running had this many votes on her own.
Let’s assume Jennifer Lawrence (“Joy”), who had 107 votes of her own, received enough of the fractional votes from the surplus rule applied to those ballots listing Larson first to reach this new threshold to become the fourth nominee, as she was in actuality.
Before beginning round three, a new third threshold is calculated. We remove Lawrence’s 107 ballots leaving 407. With one spot left, we divide 407 by two and round up for a new third threshold of 204. If one actress achieves this, there will only be 203 votes in play.
At this point, the accountants redistribute the ballots of the actress with the fewest first-place votes to the next actress 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 actress still in the running. This will be done with the ballots of each actress who has the least first-place votes until someone reaches the new threshold of 204.
The eventual fifth nominee was Charlotte Rampling (“45 Years”), who started with just 14 votes, behind both Carey Mulligan (“Suffragette”) with 20 votes and Lily Tomlin (“Grandma”) with 15.
While the Best Picture champ 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 chooses just one of the nominees and the Oscar goes to the that nominee with the most votes.
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