Oscars 101: Mystery of nominations process solved

Voting for Oscar nominations begins today and runs through Jan. 8, with nominations announced on Jan. 16. Ballots are available online and have been put in the post for those of the 6,028 academy members who requested this method.

While the Best Picture nominees are determined by a complicated counting method which we explained in detail earlier this week, 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 Actress race. 

Between our Experts, Editors and Users, 1,738 ballots were cast for Best Actress. 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. (The Actors branch of the academy has 1,176 members.)

There are five nominees for Best Actress. In our scenario, the initial threshold for a nomination was set at 290 votes (i.e., 1,738 divided by 6 and rounded up). If each of five women reaches this cut-off, they will account for 1,450 votes, making it mathematically impossible for a sixth actress to get more than 288 votes. 

Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook” had 919 first place votes and Jessica Chastain (“Zero Dark Thirty”) had 412. 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 348 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 actress below her on the ballot who is still in the running and not yet nominated. 

Lawrence only needed 290 first place votes to reach the initial threshold so each of her 919 votes is apportioned with .32 of the vote going to her and .68 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 639 ballots in all. Likewise, with Chastain, .70 of each of her votes will be counted in her column while .30 will go to someone further down the ballot putting the equivalent of another 132 ballots in play. 

Because Lawrence and Chastain 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 actress in the third position  (assuming she got at least one first place vote from someone to remain eligible.) 

Perhaps this was when eventual real-life nominee Quvenzhane Wallis (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) who had 65 votes, picked up enough fractional votes to reach the initial threshold of 290. If so, those ballots would be set aside as well. [Two other women — Marion Cotillard (“Rust and Bone”) and early frontrunner Laura Linney (“Hyde Park on the Hudson”) had 84 and 83 first-place votes respectively but neither reaped a bid in real-life.]

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 still in the process and the number of nominees still left to be determined. We started with 1,738 ballots and have removed 1,396 [919 (Lawrence), 412 (Chastain), 65 (Wallis)] leaving 342. As there are two spots left, we divide 342 by three and round up giving us a new second threshold of 115. If two actress each got this many votes they would account for 230 votes, leaving only 112 in play. No actress still in the running had this many votes on her own. Let’s assume Naomi Watts (“The Impossible”), who had 41 votes of her own, received enough of the fractional votes from the surplus rule applied to those ballots listing Lawrence or Chastain 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 removed Watts’ 41 ballots leaving 301. With one spot left, we divide 301 by two and round up for a new third threshold of 151. If one actress achieves this, there will only be 150 votes in play. 

At this point, the accountants redistribute the ballots of the actress with the fewest number one votes to the next actress further down on the ballot who is still in search of a nomination. Maggie Smith (“Quartet”) and Barbra Streisand (“The Guilt Trip”) have just two votes apiece. The accountants would look on each of these ballots for the next highest ranked actress still in the running (i.e., Lawrence, Chastain, Wallis or Watts). This will be done with the ballots of each actress who has the least number one votes until someone reaches the new threshold of 150. The eventual fifth nominee was Emmanulle Riva (“Amour”). 

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.

Who will win Best Actress this year? Vote below using our easy drag-and-drop menu.

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