We are just two weeks away from the beginning of the voting period for Oscar nominations. On January 5, 2018 ballots will be available online or put in the post for those academy members who request this method. Voting runs through January 12, with nominations announced 11 days later on January 23.
While the Best Picture nominees are determined by a different 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 Best Actress race.
Between our experts (journalists who cover this beat year-round), website editors and readers like you, we cast 4,426 nomination ballots for Best Actress. (By comparison, the actors branch of the academy had 1,158 members last year.) 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 738 votes (i.e., 4,426 divided by 6 and rounded up). If each of five women reaches this cut-off, they will account for 3,690 votes, making it mathematically impossible for a sixth actress to get more than 736 votes.
Emma Stone (“La La Land”) had 2,725 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 886 votes — thus triggering the surplus rule (Best Picture balloting invokes the surplus rule with a 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.
Stone only needed 738 first-place votes to reach the initial threshold so each of her 2,725 votes is apportioned with .27 of the vote staying with her and .73 going 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 1,987 ballots in all.
The same scenario happened with Natalie Portman (“Jackie”) who had 980 votes. They would be apportioned in the following ratio: .753 to her and .247 to the next ranked actress that was eligible.
Perhaps this was when Isabelle Huppert (“Elle”), who had 190 votes initially, picked up enough fractional votes to reach the initial threshold of 738. If so, those ballots would be set aside as well.
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 4,426 ballots and have removed 3,895 [2,725 (Stone), 980 (Portman) and 190 (Huppert)] leaving 531.
As there are two spots left, we divide 531 by three and round up giving us a new second threshold of 178. If two actresses each got this many votes they would account for 356 votes, leaving only 175 in play. No actress still in the running had this many votes on her own.
Let’s assume Meryl Streep (“Florence Foster Jenkins”), who had 25 votes of her own, received enough of the fractional votes from the surplus rule applied to those ballots listing Stone and Portman 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 Streep’s 25 ballots leaving 506. With one spot left, we divide 506 by two and round up for a new third threshold of 254. If one actress achieves this, there will only be 252 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 254.
The eventual fifth nominee was Ruth Negga (“Loving”), who started with just 25 votes, behind both Amy Adams (“Suffragette”) with 102 votes and Annette Bening (“20th Century Women”) with 37.
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.
Be sure to make your Oscar nomination predictions so that Hollywood studio executives can see how their films are faring in our Academy Awards odds. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before nominees are announced on January 23.