Lani Guinier’s Oscar Fever

How the proportional voting system used in Oscar nominations encourages diversity.

The Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit group chaired by John Anderson and based in Takoma Park, Md., has come up with an ingenious gimmick to promote its campaign against winner-take-all elections. Like many left-leaning organizations, the Center prefers proportional representation because it empowers minorities. Under proportional representation, rather than pick one winner, voters pick several, allowing individuals who lack a plurality to nonetheless gain office. In a city council election, for instance, rather than divide the city into individual districts and select the winners based on who gets the most votes in each, you can have a citywide vote and designate as winners however many of the top vote-getters you need to fill the available seats. Lani Guinier is probably the most famous advocate of proportional voting; click here to read her recent Nation article on the subject. (The cumulative-voting scheme Guinier promoted a decade ago, which got her branded a “quota queen” by Clint Bolick when Bill Clinton nominated her to be assistant attorney general for civil rights, is a complicated variant of proportional representation, one she doesn’t discuss much anymore.)

Proportional representation isn’t pie in the sky; it’s used in many government jurisdictions, in the U.S. and elsewhere, and also by many private organizations. Among the latter, the Center for Voting and Democracy cleverly points out, is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when it selects Oscar nominees, as it will do Feb. 13.

Years ago, the Academy asked the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse (now PricewaterhouseCoopers) to figure out how it should select Oscar nominees. Price Waterhouse chose proportional representation. (Click here for PricewaterhouseCoopers’ official history of its association with the Oscars and here for its regrettably sketchy description of how the balloting works.) According to Dan Johnson-Weinberger, who heads up the Center for Voting and Democracy’s new Hollywood office, Price Waterhouse came up with the same variant on proportional representation now employed by the Irish Parliament, the Australian Senate, and the city council of Cambridge, Mass.

Here’s how it works. In January, the Academy’s 5,500 members receive Oscar ballots. Members vote in their occupational category or categories (actors for other actors, directors for other directors, set decorators for other set decorators, etc.) for up to five winners, designated in descending order. Anybody who gets support of 20 percent of the voters automatically becomes a nominee. (The 20 percent figure is approximate; click here if you want a fuller explanation.) The same rules apply in the balloting for Best Picture nominees, but in this instance everyone gets to vote.

According to Johnson-Weinberger, the Oscar nomination process encourages much more diversity than those for the Tonys, the Grammys, or the Emmys. If you belong to a “political minority within the academy, which might like art films,” this strengthens your hand. Of course, not all Academy minorities are this enlightened. Judging from past balloting, there’s a distinct Academy minority that believes that anybody playing a streetwalker with a heart of gold automatically deserves to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress. This group has exaggerated sway, too. More urgently, isn’t any system that can select for Best Picture a mawkish piece of trash like Driving Miss Daisy fundamentally flawed? Johnson-Weinberger has an answer to that: Although the nominees are chosen by proportional voting, the winners are chosen by a “first past the post” system of the sort the Center for Voting and Democracy really doesn’t care for. (In instances where only one candidate can be designated the winner, the Center prefers a runoff when no candidate wins a majority. The Academy doesn’t do this.) “My guess is Driving Miss Daisy did not win a majority of votes,” Johnson-Weinberger explains. “There was probably a George W. Bush-type plurality winner.” He means, of course, that Bush won a plurality in enough states to win the Electoral College; based on the nationwide popular vote, the plurality winner was Al Gore. In any event, Chatterbox likes thinking of George W. Bush as the Driving Miss Daisy of American presidents.

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