Iowa Caucus Has More in Common With Oscar Voting Than You’d Think

Thousands are set to cast ballots this week on two important races: the Iowa caucus and the Oscars, both of which rely on ranked-choice voting systems that are commonly misunderstood.

When deciding who will win best picture at this year’s Academy Awards, voters are asking to list their favorite movies in order of preference. In Iowa for the Democrats, if your candidate doesn’t hit a threshold — usually 15% in the precinct — you’re then asking to pick another candidate with more votes.

Here, Variety breaks down why the two processes are alike.

When it happens

Iowa Caucus: Monday, Feb. 3.

Oscars: Voting closes on Tuesday, Feb. 4.

Number of voters

Iowa Caucus: About 172,000 people participated in the 2016 Democratic contest.

Oscars: Roughly 9,000 people are members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that decides the Oscars.

How to vote

Iowa Caucus: You must vote in person.

Oscars: You must fill out a paper or electronic ballot.

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How the process works

Iowa Caucus: On the Democratic side, voters arrive on Monday night at more than 1,600 precincts throughout the state of Iowa. They cast their votes by standing in a spot in the room that correlates with their candidate of choice. If your candidate has at least 15 percent of the votes in the room, your vote is locked. If not, you’re asked to switch your vote to another candidate who is doing better. This is where having a strong ground game is valuable, particularly for the frontrunners, who are trying to appeal to the new voters — through organizers — that are up for grabs.

Oscars: Voters select their first choice from the five names listed in 23 categories such as best director and acting. But best picture has worked differently since 2010, when the Academy expanded the top category to include up to 10 films. In order to prevent a less popular movie from winning a fractured race, the Oscars introduced a preferential ballot, meaning that voters rank the best picture nominees from favorite to least favorite.

How winners are determined

Iowa Caucus: For the first time, Iowa will release three different tallies from its Democratic caucus results. There will be the initial vote, which is where the candidates stand at the beginning of the night. There will be the realignment vote, the totals after those who backed the lower vote getters have moved their votes elsewhere. And there will be the delegate totals, which is awarded based on the final votes in the precincts and a formula that looks at Democratic turnout by county in the 2018 gubernatorial race. The candidate who receives the most delegates is traditionally considered the winner of the Iowa caucus.

Oscars: For the best picture race, the lowest vote getter of all the nominees is eliminated, and the No. 2 votes on those ballots are then divided up among the remaining films. This process is repeated, with the least popular movies being eliminated one round at a time, until a movie has received 50 percent of the vote. And the first movie that crosses that threshold is the winner. In general, this system favors films that are most generally well liked, as opposed to movies that are divisive.


Since the Oscars have gone to preferential ballots, there’s been criticism that the new system has resulted in the Academy awarding “safer films.” As for the Iowa caucus, “it makes more votes count and the candidate who emerges from the process shows a strength in the party,” says Rob Richie, the president of FairVote, a nonpartisan organization.