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Opinion: The problem with the way Best Picture is picked at the Oscars

This Sunday, the Academy Awards will announce the Best Picture winner picked through ranked choice voting, a practice also increasingly used for political elections. As a journalist who covers both national politics and the film industry, I believe ranked choice voting has been great for public policy — but it’s bad for the Oscars.
First, a quick primer on how ranked choice works. Rather than voting for only one movie or political candidate, voters declare their preferences in order, from the first choice to last. Then the votes are counted. If no candidate or movie wins an outright majority, an “instant runoff” happens. The least popular option is eliminated, and any voter who chose that option for the first place is reassigned to their second choice option instead. This process repeats itself until one movie or candidate finally commands more than half of ballots.
What 'Minari' is doing for Asian American farmers like meWhat 'Minari' is doing for Asian American farmers like me
Usually, this results in a consensus around the winner. Even if not every voter thinks the winner was the very best choice, at least most can agree that it was a decent one.
The Academy Awards changed its Best Picture voting system to ranked choice starting with films released in 2009.
Now, ranked choice is coming to national politics, too.
Last November, Maine became the first state to implement it for US Senate elections. This June, it is coming to the New York City mayoral primary. The Fair Representation Act in the House of Representatives would, among other dramatic reforms, establish ranked choice voting for Congressional races. Ranked choice voting has generally been considered successful in cities and states that use it.
But the methodology has been widely criticized when it comes to the Oscars, for rewarding play-it-safe fare over more innovative, daring or influential nominees. Most Best Picture winners since 2009 have been decently good but not necessarily great, films that didn’t push boundaries or take many creative or artistic risks, like “The King’s Speech,” “Argo” and “Green Book.”
Americans are hitting the road. This amazing film goes along for the rideAmericans are hitting the road. This amazing film goes along for the ride
Now think of the nominees of the last decade or so that didn’t win: “Inception,” “Get Out,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Lady Bird,” “Whiplash,” “Django Unchained,” “Black Klansman,” “Boyhood,” “District 9,” “Interstellar,” “Inglorious Basterds,” “The Revenant,” “Gravity,” “American Sniper” and “Black Panther.” Some of these films would surely have ruffled a few feathers had they won. These titles all have their share of detractors — while nobody truly hated or was deeply offended by, say, “The King’s Speech.”
My point: Inoffensive films are not always great. Great films evoke strong reactions and often give offense. That’s part of why they’re great. Ranked choice voting does not favor polarizing choices.
What does that mean for this Sunday? This year’s three Best Picture front-runners are “Nomadland,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “Minari.” Under ranked choice, that makes sense. Everyone can be opposed to homelessness and biased judges, or support the American dream. Yet, ranked choice disadvantages nominees with narrower thematic appeal. How many people care about Herman J. Mankiewicz, the writer of a black-and-white movie from 80 years ago, and protagonist of fellow nominee, “Mank”?
A great, groundbreaking film can still win if it doesn’t have too many detractors. But with ranked choice methodology, a “perfectly fine” movie can also win. The category is Best Picture, so it should truly reward the best, not just the film everybody can agree was OK.
The Chicago 7 trial feels very real in 2020The Chicago 7 trial feels very real in 2020
Politics is a different story. Recent years have lent credence to the idea that government officials should abide by the Hippocratic oath so long considered sacred in medicine: “First, do no harm.” A fine but not great political victor, especially for the presidency, would bring both policy and political benefits.
The stakes of choosing public officials are very high. Policy failures in the 21st century alone — on both sides of the aisle — have contributed to a mistaken war that cost thousands of American lives and more than a trillion dollars, the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, and now, too often, a blind eye turned to mass shootings and the climate crisis. In the words of the late baseball manager Sparky Anderson: “Losing hurts twice as bad as winning feels good.” Similarly, with nothing less than people’s lives and the fate of the planet at stake, bad policies are twice as bad as good policies are good.
Recent White House occupants, particularly Barack Obama and Donald Trump, were considered heroic by half the nation and the devil incarnate by the other half, so it’s highly unlikely that either would have been elected in a ranked choice voting system. Yet both were elected under the status quo (though, unlike Trump, Obama won the popular vote twice and maintained higher approval ratings). Even if you loved one of those two men as president, odds are you probably hated the other one. In fact, you probably think “the bad one” was twice as bad as “the good one” was good.
In the post-World War II era, presidents considered upper tier have spanned both parties from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, while presidents considered on the worse end of the spectrum have also spanned both parties from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush.
A president often considered fine but not great, akin to many of last decade’s Best Picture winners, was George H.W. Bush. Although he lost his reelection bid, the bipartisan outpouring of grief following Bush’s passing, for not only the man but also his presidency, exemplified a now-widespread belief that we could use someone like him today.
He won 40 states, in his first election, an insurmountable total for either party today. He compromised on policies, for example breaking his famous campaign pledge “Read my lips: no new taxes,” because he believed it best for the nation. He exuded a calm gentle demeanor in an era before politicians could seemingly only excel by firing up stadiums full of their base, getting irate on cable news appearances, or posting the most viral social media updates.
We don’t need more calm consensus Best Picture winners like “The King’s Speech.” But perhaps we do need more calm consensus presidents like George H.W. Bush.
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