In the category of best voting method, the nominees are ...

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Lynnell Mickelsen
Lynnell Mickelsen is a Minneapolis writer.
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By Lynnell Mickelsen

On Sunday night, in addition to sweeping the Oscars with six Academy Awards, "The Hurt Locker" quietly won yet another distinction: It was the first film to win "Best Picture" as the result of ranked choice voting.

Yeah, I know. This little detail kind of got lost in all the celebrity gown coverage. But still, Sunday's awards marked the prime time Oscar debut of a voting system whose time may have come.

The Academy switched to ranked choice voting, or RCV, for Best Picture for the same reason most cities and groups use it: It's the fairest way to pick a winner when more than two choices are on the ballot.

This year, 10 films were up for Best Picture. So if Academy members had been able to pick only one, it would have been technically possible for a movie to win with only 11 percent of the vote. Put another way, a film that 89 percent of the voters did not pick could have won Best Picture, a scenario the Academy was determined to avoid.

A "spoiler" winning Best Picture could tick off movie fans, undermine the Oscar's credibility and dent its ability to rake in cash. (Analysts say winning Best Picture can typically add $20 million to $40 million to a film's box office revenues).

So the Academy switched to ranked choice voting, a century-old system used for local elections in Minneapolis, San Francisco, London, Ireland and Australia, and coming soon to St. Paul, Memphis and Springfield, Ill. Duluth is considering it. Robert's Rules of Order recommends it. In short, RCV is hardly some new, whackadoodle idea.

Critics always bewail how complicated RCV is, in terms of both voting and counting. But the math-phobic Hollywood crowd apparently handled it, and PriceWaterhouseCooper accountants seemed unruffled as always. Here's how they say it worked:

The 6,000 or so voting members of the Academy received ballots with 10 films listed and ranked their favorites from 1 to 10. Or, if they didn't feel that ambitious, from 1 to 5 or 1 to 3. The ballots ultimately ended up in the famed windowless, secret room where the accountants made 10 piles, one for each film. In each pile, they put all the ballots that ranked that film No. 1. The smallest pile was eliminated and all the #2 choices from those ballots were redistributed to the remaining films.

This process allowed people to freely vote for the film they were most passionate about. They didn't have to worry about "wasting" "their vote on, say, "A Serious Man" and thus giving Best Picture to, say, "Avatar," the big sci-fi blockbuster that Hollywood people either love or hate.

The process kept going for however many rounds it took for "The Hurt Locker" to come up with 51 percent or more of the ballots. (We don't know the actual numbers because the Academy always treats the actual tallies -- whether it's RCV or the old way -- like some nuclear secret and never releases them.) And then, ta da! We had a winner. And not just any old winner. We had a film that was truly the top choice or a top choice of the majority of voters.

Whether that's a good thing depends on how you feel about "The Hurt Locker" ... or consensus rule in general. Ranked choice voting favors the movie -- or ideology or candidate -- that has majority approval. So how people feel about RCV usually depends on whether they believe their movie -- or ideology or candidate -- could eventually win 51 percent or more of the vote.

Here in Minnesota, the DFL, Independence, Libertarian and Green Parties all support RCV, while our current Republicans mostly oppose it. Each group can list noble reasons pro and con. But the bottom line is that no political party supports a voting system under which it can't win. So the Republican opposition could be seen as a lack of confidence about whether 51 percent or more of Minnesotans share their ideology.

Which leads to some deeper questions: Does majority rule really matter? Is it necessary for a healthy democracy or government? Does consensus usually make for better decisions?

In the case of this year's Best Picture, the answer probably depends on whether you liked "The Hurt Locker." In the case of Minnesota, where the governor's race has been thrice won with less than 50 percent of the vote, the answer probably depends on whether you think Minnesota is better off after one term of Jesse Ventura followed by two terms of Tim Pawlenty. "Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half the time," wrote E.B. White. Ranked choice voting is based on the same suspicion. I'd love to see Minnesota follow the Oscars' lead and try it statewide.


Lynnell Mickelsen is a Minneapolis writer.