We are just under two weeks away from the beginning of the voting period for Oscar nominations. On January 7, 2019 ballots will be available online. Voting runs through January 14, with nominations announced eight days later on January 22.
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 6,366 nomination ballots for Best Actress. (By comparison, the actors branch of the academy had 1,218 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 1,062 votes (i.e., 6,366 divided by 6 and rounded up). If each of five women reaches this cut-off, they will account for 5,310 votes, making it mathematically impossible for a sixth actress to get more than 1,056 votes.
France McDormand (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) had 4,066 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 1,274 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.
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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.
McDormand only needed 1,062 first-place votes to reach the initial threshold so each of her 4,066 votes is apportioned with .26 of the vote staying with her and .74 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 3,004 ballots in all.
Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird”) came tantalizing close to the magic number by racking up 1,029 first-place votes. In our scenario, she is all but certain to have crossed this threshold from those fractional McDormand votes.
And so ends round one with two of the five slots filled.
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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 6,366 ballots and have removed 5,095 [4,066 (McDormand), 1,029 (Ronan)] leaving 1,271.
As there are three spots left, we divide the 1,271 ballots by four and round up giving us a new second threshold of 318. If three actresses each got this many votes they would account for 954 votes, leaving only 317 in play.
Sally Hawkins (“The Shape of Water”) had 685 votes initially and would have become the third nominee at this stage.
Meryl Streep (“The Post”) came into this round with 208 first-place votes. Perhaps she received enough of the fractional votes from the surplus rule applied to those ballots listing McDormand first to reach this new threshold to become the fourth nominee, as she was in actuality.
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Before beginning round three, a new third threshold is calculated. We remove Hawkin’s 685 ballots and Streep’s 208 from the 1,271 in play, leaving a new total of 378. With one spot left, we divide 378 by two and round up for a new third threshold of 190. If one actress achieves this, there will only be 188 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 190.
The eventual fifth nominee was Margot Robbie (“I, Tonya”), who started with just 143 votes.
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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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 22.