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What The Oscars Can Learn From MVP Voting

Ken Rosenthal voted for Jacoby Ellsbury for AL MVP last season. Who did Meryl Streep vote for as Best Supporting Actress? Wouldn't you love to know?

Could you leave through the gate in the right field? That'll draw them all out of here. I mean, they're going to get you anyway. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Could you leave through the gate in the right field? That'll draw them all out of here. I mean, they're going to get you anyway. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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In 1999, Rafael Palmeiro won the American League Gold Glove award at first base, despite playing only 28 games in the field.

Just a few weeks later, American Beauty won the Academy Award for Best Picture, despite being an overwrought, faux-profound screed* against the soullessness of – get this! – suburbia.

* Before you object, remember this is the film where the hero tried to sleep with his daughter's 16-year-old best friend and lived next door to a gay Nazi whose son cried at plastic bags.

How did this happen? How did such obviously undeserving candidates win awards for which they probably should have been ineligible?

It's easy to dismiss the electorate as dumb (fun, too!). But a better-designed voting system, like the one used for baseball's MVP award, might have prevented these absurd outcomes. A sane and just voting system could never honor Derek Jeter for his fielding, or Crash for its screenplay. A well-designed system would nudge voters toward better choices that wouldn't seem embarrassing years after the fact.

MVP elections use a form of range or preference voting. That is, first-place votes are worth more than second-place votes, which are worth more than third-place votes, etc. In a multiple candidate election, range voting has a better chance of producing a reasonable result. I thought Matt Kemp was a little better than Ryan Braun last season, but Braun was certainly an acceptable choice. They don't always get it right, but it's rare that the voters pick someone who wasn't one of the top five players in his league.

Oscar voting is winner-take-all, like our presidential elections, but with up to ten candidates instead of two. With this kind of voting system, it is likely that a film will one day win Best Picture with less than 15 percent of the vote. Indeed, this may have happened already. As Bill James has written, if we picked presidents the way we pick Gold Gloves (also a multi-candidate winner-take-all), eventually someone like David Duke would get elected.

Which brings me to another deficiency of Oscar voting: the total lack of transparency. Even in secret ballot elections, one knows how many votes went to the victor. Justin Verlander won the American League MVP award last year by 38 points. He received 13 first-place votes, and 15 were split among four other players.

What was Shakespeare in Love's margin of victory over Saving Private Ryan? Or Gandhi's over Tootsie? Did Tootsie even come in second place? What film won Best Picture with the largest share of the vote? I have no idea. Nobody has any idea, except maybe a few people at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm tasked with tabulating Oscar votes*.

* Thank God the votes are kept safe by a big accounting firm. As recent history has taught us, big accounting firms are beyond reproach.

Knowing the vote totals would stop conspiracy theories in their tracks. Did Jack Palance exercise his "presenter's veto" when he gave Marissa Tomei the Best Supporting Actress trophy in 1993? Did he get confused and read the wrong name? I sincerely doubt it, but until the Academy releases the vote totals, who can say the conspiracy nuts are wrong?

Though MVP voters aren't required to disclose their ballots, I know that Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe voted for Verlander because he wrote a column about it. Lots of voters write columns about who they voted for and why. This generates interest in the award and should be encouraged. Being a cynic, and knowing nothing about Mr. Abraham other than what paper employs him, I would have guessed he voted for Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury. But I'm glad to be wrong. I mean, I think José Bautista was more valuable than either of them, but at least I know Peter Abraham isn't some provincial homer. A secret ballot is preferable in political elections, as a bulwark against bribery and intimidation, but sometimes sunlight is the best disinfectant*.

* Metaphorically, I mean. For tough jobs, Lysol® Disinfectant Spray kills 99.9% of odor-causing bacteria.

Did the Coen Brothers vote for Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) or Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds) for Best Director in 2010? Did Meryl Streep vote for Natalie Portman or Annette Bening for Best Actress last year? Did Paul Thomas Anderson vote for The Social Network or Toy Story 3 for Best Adapted Screenplay? Wouldn't you love to know? Knowing would add interest not just to the Academy Awards, but to the films and filmmakers themselves.

As Rob Neyer wrote in "Moneyball and Me*":

Of course, the idea in the book wasn't that Grady Fuson and Art Howe were idiots. The idea was that every enterprise interested in success should ask a very simple but potentially disturbing and disruptive question ...

If we weren't already doing it this way, is this how we would do it?

Oscar voting is badly designed and lacks any measure of transparency. The list of past Best Picture winners is less a catalogue of great movies than an embarrassing joke, and the recent addition of up to five more Best Picture nominees practically guarantees majority dissatisfaction with the outcome. If the Academy isn't careful, the Oscars, like the Gold Gloves and Hall of Fame, will someday lose their capacity to honor.

* Like I'd write 900 words on the Oscars and baseball without mentioning Moneyball.