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Michael Conniff Headshot

Con Games: Bet On Big Oscar Brouhaha

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Like the blue folk of Avatar, Hollywood is facing an Oscar scandal of massive proportions without a clue as to what happens in the end.

I know because I live in a town that is still trying to recover from Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), the method of misbegotten democracy just adopted by the Academy Awards in this exponential age of ten nominees for "Best Picture." In the old days -- starting in 1946 and persisting until last year -- the movie that came away with the most votes won in a simple exercise of plurality rule. To win "Best Picture" this time around, a picture like Avatar has to achieve more than 50 percent of the vote -- and that could take multiple rounds of voting.

So what's the big deal? In Aspen, Colorado, where I hover -- home to an IRV election in 2008 -- the new system of ranking voters has left an election still fundamentally flawed and unresolved, with lawsuits from citizens and city officials determined to defend themselves till the final credits against all charges. Litigation about the Aspen Mayoral and City Council elections is still looming as we speak.

Not unlike the City of Aspen, the Academy has gone to a ranking system, with movies gauged by Academy members from 1 to 10. If any movie wins a majority on the first ballot, the party's over and the new (or old) king of the world can pop the champagne.

"If not," according to Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker, "the last-place finisher is dropped and its voters second choices are distributed among the movies still in the running. If there's still no majority, the second-to-last-place finisher gets eliminated, and its voters' second (or third) choices are counted. And so on, until one of the nominees goes over fifty percent.

Trust me, this is the first year that the penguins from PriceWaterhouseCoopers are guaranteed to earn their money. Before, the winner -- the one with the most votes -- simply won. Now there's the possibility of gaming the system. I'm not sure if we'll see Oscar trade ads with studios saying: "We're the second-best picture of the year" -- but it's not the worst idea given the dim peculiarities of IRV. You could literally not get a single first-place vote and still win the Oscar based on a voter's second and/or tertiary choices.

The idea of a "Best Picture" with no first-place votes is only slightly less chilling that the shower scene in Psycho.

"And so on," as Hertzberg says. "And so on" in Aspen is going on and on, but at least the citizens calling for recounts and closer scrutiny of digital ballots can go to court with the hope of making them public. No such review will happen with this year's "Best Picture." Other than the PriceWaterhouseCoopers gang, no one will ever no what happened in the voting unless there's a leak of Deep Throat proportions.

Fasten your seatbelts, Tinseltown. It's going to be a bumpy ride.