“Look at me, look at me, look at me now! It’s fun to have fun, but you have to know how.” — The Cat in the Hat
Okay, I said I was finished talking about the Hugo Awards, but for those who are still trying to figure out why everybody connected with science fiction and fantasy seems to have lost their collective mind and conglomerated into a pair of rock-chucking political action committees screaming about blocs and slates and logrolling and voxxing/doxxing/foxx in soxxing and whisper campaigns and nuking from orbit and some guy named Noah Ward, I thought it might be helpful to review how the actual Hugo voting works.
I expect this voting system will seem a bit odd to most of you, because it’s Australian.
Yes, that’s right. From the Land Down Under, home of the bloomin’ kangaroo, “what’s got a pocket in front where it carries its young nipper and goes bouncin’ around like a bloomin’ jumpin’ jack, ‘ippity-‘oppity, ‘ippity-‘oppity, ‘ippity-‘oppity…”
If you want to split hairs, it was invented in the U.S., but it was first used in Australia, and has been most popular there. The Australian System is also known as “preferential voting,” since voters rank-order all the candidates for each office on their ballot in order of preference. It’s also called “instant-runoff voting,” for reasons we’ll get to later.
The Aussies use preferential voting in elections for their House of Representatives and most State governments. It’s also been adopted in other places and has come and gone and come again in a few U.S. localities since 1912. Some people are pitching it as a way to ditch the Electoral College, so there’s yet another reason to keep an eye on how this Hugo thing works in practice, even if you don’t care who wins.
Preferential voting doesn’t necessarily elect the most popular candidates, but it gravitates toward those likely to not inspire a strongly negative reaction from most voters. In a sense, it’s electing the candidate the electorate dislikes the least. There are some practical advantages: no long, expensive runoffs in tight elections (as you’ll see in a few moments); less impact when like-minded voters split their votes among multiple candidates, and every entry on the ballot matters. That last one is very important.
Let’s say you’ve taken an interest, you’ve got your Worldcon membership, and you’re ready to vote. You’ve read all the stories in contention (You did read them, didn’t you? Of course you did). You vote by ranking each nominee on the ballot for each category in order of preference, 1 through 5, or however many there are. You also have the option of voting a rank for No Award (which is treated just like a nominee, hence the nickname, “Noah Ward,” tee-hee), or not ranking a particular nominee at all, which is equivalent to voting them in last place, except they won’t be included in the tabulation of your ballot. That is also very important.
The votes are tabulated in a series of rounds. In the first round, all the first-place votes are counted, and if one nominee gets more than 50% of the votes, they win. If not, the nominee that got the fewest first-place votes is removed from consideration, and the second-place votes on all the ballots that ranked the eliminated nominee first are treated as first-place votes for the second round, and the votes are counted again (so those second-place and below votes still carry some weight, even when your favorite is out). The process is repeated until one candidate gets a majority of the votes, even if the candidate is “Noah Ward.” Tee-hee. If Noah wins, nobody gets a rocket, though I think some folks plan to dance around a bonfire on his behalf.
All clear? Yeah, I hear you. Here’s a handy flowchart, courtesy of io9, for all us visual learners:
In theory, the tabulating and recounting could go to several rounds, and those lower-ranked nominees will begin to have some impact. If the voting is scattered enough, they could climb a place or two in the final results or make the difference between close contenders for first and second place, though it’s unlikely they’d win. Brandon Sanderson presents a scenario from a past Hugo vote here, with the actual numbers.
Then there’s one more count, called the “No Award Test,” and I’ll let the Hugo Awards site describe this one itself:
The final check before a winner can be determined is known as the No Award Test. The valid ballots are divided into three piles: those in which No Award is ranked higher than the prospective winner (PW), those in which the prospective winner is ranked higher than No Award, and those in which neither No Award nor the prospective winner have preferences listed. Note that a ballot that contains a preference for the prospective winner but does not contain a preference for No Award goes into the “prospective winner higher than no award” pile. This is because lack of preference is, by definition, lower than any preference. Having got the three piles, the votes in the “prospective winner higher than No Award pile” and the votes in the “No Award higher than prospective winner” pile are counted. If the number of votes with the prospective winner placed higher is greater then the result is confirmed. If the pile with No Award placed higher is greater then no award is given in the category that year.
It’s important that you realize that we count the ballot at this stage if the prospective winner is ranked OR No Award is ranked. You don’t have to rank them both. The only ballots that don’t count here are those that rank neither the PW nor NA.
Once again, we see it makes a difference what you rank or leave blank on your ballot, including “Noah Ward.” Tee-hee.
For second through fifth place, the votes that selected the winner in first place are removed, and everything gets counted again as before, with lagging nominees dropped and their votes redistributed and recounted for each place until a majority count is attained. Then the results are announced, and there is binge drinking and gnashing of teeth. There’s always a clear winner—by now you can probably see how the tabulating process eliminates ties and folds a runoff for close votes into itself.
If it’s important to you that the stories you hate with incandescent fury not win, place, or show, but vanish from the final results altogether to burn in a sulfurous pit of Hades until the end of time, the preferred technique is to rank only the stories you like, followed by No Award, with no other rankings marked on the ballot. This ensures the nasty stories will not have a vote from you counted in any way, shape, or form, period. It will be as if they never existed. These two posts widely circulated before last year’s Hugos explain this bit of inside baseball in more detail, with examples:
There’s also this popular voting guide, guaranteed to keep one’s ballot sparkly-clean and ethically unimpeachable, that walks the conscientious voter through the proper ballot entries with no need to fear tripping over the subtleties of Australian Rules Voting. It seems some other people this year are conspiring to vote as a bloc, from a slate, and they must be stopped.
For the actual Hugo voters of any affiliation, as that guide says, It’s your choice. Hey, it’s not as if you’re a zombie who would vote in lockstep with some yahoo’s agenda simply because they posted a list of suggestions on the internet.
Happy voting, mates.