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

Voting for Oscar nominations begins on December 30 and runs through January 8, with nominations announced six days later. Ballots will be available online or put in the post for those of the 6,261 academy members who request this method.

While the Best Picture nominees are determined by a complicated counting method which we explain 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. 

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Between our experts (journalists who cover this beat year-round), website editors and readers like you, we cast 3,051 nomination ballots for Best Actor. (The actors branch of the academy has 1,138 members.) 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. 

There are five nominees for Best Actor. In our scenario, the initial threshold — i.e., magic number — for a nomination was set at 509 votes (i.e., 3,051 divided by 6 and rounded up). If each of five fellows reaches this cut-off, they will account for 2,545 votes, making it mathematically impossible for a sixth actor to get more than 506 votes. 

Michael Keaton (“Birdman”) had 1,712 first place votes and earned a bid (as he 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 he reaped at least 20% more first place votes than needed to be nominated — in our scenario that is 611 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 actor below him on the ballot who is still in the running and not yet nominated. 

Keaton only needed 509 first-place votes to reach the initial threshold so each of his 1,712 votes is apportioned with .297 of the vote staying with him and .703 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 1,203 ballots in all. 

Perhaps this was when eventual winner Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”) who had 341 votes initially, picked up enough fractional votes to reach the initial threshold of 509. If so, those ballots would be set aside as well. Likewise for Bendict Cumberbatch (“The Imitation Game”) who had 148 votes at the outset. 

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

Click here to see odds and rankings of our Oscar Experts

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 3,051 ballots and have removed 2,201 [1,712 (Keaton), 341 (Redmayne) and 148 (Cumberbatch)] leaving 850.

As there are two spots left, we divide 850 by three and round up giving us a new second threshold of 284. If two actors each got this many votes they would account for 568 votes, leaving only 282 in play. No actor still in the running had this many votes on his own.

Let’s assume Steve Carell (“Foxcatcher”), who had 146 votes of his own, received enough of the fractional votes from the surplus rule applied to those ballots listing Keaton first to reach this new threshold to become the fourth nominee, as he was in actuality.

Click here to see ups and downs of Oscar races over entire awards season

Before beginning round three, a new third threshold is calculated. We remove Carell’s 146 ballots leaving 704. With one spot left, we divide 704 by two and round up for a new third threshold of 353. If one actor achieves this, there will only be 351 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 353.

The eventual fifth nominee was Bradley Cooper (“American Sniper”), who started with just 10 votes, behind both David Oyelowo (“Selma”) with 33 votes and Jake Gyllenhaal (“Nightcrawler) with 22. 

Click here to see odds and rankings of our Oscar Experts

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 chooses just one of the nominees and the Oscar goes to the that nominee with the most votes.

Who do you think will win Best Actor at the Oscars this year? 

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 Photo credit: AMPAS

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