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Keith Rankin: Awarding Votes

Awarding Votes

by Keith Rankin

The vagaries of first-past-the-post (FPP) voting are far from an historical curiosity for New Zealanders. Not only do we vote for our mayors and electorate MPs by this method, but many of the award ceremonies that are important to us may lead to winners which the majority of the judges believe no not deserve to win.

The Oscars this Monday (New Zealand time) are a good case in point. Each Oscar winner might get anything from 21% to 100% of the vote. A film which 79% of the judges believe is not one of the best four movies of the year could come away with the Best Picture award. Where support is approximately even for each of the five nominated movies (or actors, screenplays etc.) the result is little more than a lottery. Only second or further preferences can determine the most deserving winner.

The good news is that, with the Oscars, nobody is voting for a government. So there is less reason for voters to vote tactically for a candidate who is not their preferred option. (Those of us with memories of FPP elections will know that an effective vote was always a vote for the candidate most likely to defeat the candidate we least wanted to win.) Nevertheless some Academy voters probably do vote against a film they don't want to win, instead of for a film they do want to win but believe can not win.

The five Oscar nominees for each category were chosen by a preferential voting method similar to STV (Single Transferable Voting), so at least we know that any of the nominees will at least be among the best in their categories.

My feeling is that Lord of the Rings will win best film this year, and that the voting method will if anything work in Peter Jackson's favour. Anti-Jackson voters, if there are any, will probably be split amongst the other contenders.

For the female actor category, Keisha Castle-Hughes, as the outsider, arguably has a better chance of winning than she would under a preferential voting system. She could be a beneficiary of vote-splitting.

It would be interesting to know how the voting method affected the recent Halberg Awards, especially the contentious Sports Man award. I suspect that there may have been a close three-way split between Ben Fouhy, Scott Dixon and Russell Coutts. Preferential voting could well have yielded a clear-cut winner. Indeed I am sure that Scott Dixon would have won a two-way contest with any of the other three candidates. (Preferential voting always converts a multi-candidate ballot into a head to head contest between the two most favoured candidates.)

It would be much more satisfying for the publics who support these various awards (eg by watching them on TV and, before that, arguing the merits of the various films at morning tea) if the voting processes could be made more transparent, with at least the percentage support for the winners and the winning margins revealed.

The Halberg and Academy Awards give us an opportunity now to reflect upon how unsophisticated voting systems can yield surprise results. A nominee who wins "best film" one year may in fact score worse than another year's distant loser.


Keith Rankin © 2004

Keith Rankin is one of Scoop's oldest and longest serving columnists. Today we welcome him back following an extended absence. Keith welcomes reader feedback to

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