This excellent WSJ article by Carl Bialik examines the voting system in the Oscars. The Oscar voting system uses instant runoff (as opposed to the plurality system used in most US elections).
The nominees are selected using a system called instant runoff, which has been adopted in some municipal and state elections. Out of last year’s 281 eligible films, each voter selects five nominees in order of preference for, say, best picture. All movies without any first-place votes are eliminated. One problem with that system is a kind of squeaky-wheel phenomenon: A movie that is second place on every ballot will lose out to one that ranks first on only 20% of ballots but is hated by everyone else. Then, in another upside-down outcome, a movie can win for best picture even if 79% of voters hated it so long as they split their votes evenly among the losing films.
The full article illustrates this issue with a few examples that illustrate the voting problems well.
Rumor has it that the Oscar voting method prevented the masterpiece Hoop Dreams from receiving a Best Documentary nomination in 1994 (This is a travesty–in my opinion Hoop Dreams is the holy grail of documentaries).
I went to a seminar on problems in different voting systems before the 2000 elections. I wish I remember who gave the seminar, because it was one of the best I have ever attended. Ultimately, circular reasoning takes over (whoever wins the election is who we want and we determine who we want by holding an election), but there are some clear examples of who people want losing in elections. Read more about some of these issues on the Numbers Guy blog and check out this voting expert Steven Brams interview.
Who are you rooting for in the Oscars tonight? I confess, I have not seen any of the Best Picture nominees.