'And the Oscar Goes to...' The Academy Awards and the Institutional Dimension of Election Design

20 Pages Posted: 18 Aug 2009 Last revised: 2 Apr 2010

See all articles by Paul H. Edelman

Paul H. Edelman

Vanderbilt University - Law School

Date Written: August 17, 2009


The traditional approach to election design focuses solely on the best method to aggregate the preferences of the voters. Implicit in this approach are the assumptions that the outcome of the election will be dependent solely on the preferences of the individual voters over the options before them and the success of the election procedure is assessed in terms of how each individual voter values the outcome. But elections are run by institutions, and the interests of the institution may not be reflected in the preferences of the voters. Or worse, the interests of the institution may be in conflict with the preferences of the voters. If such institutional interests are not taken into account in the election design there is the potential for an election that does a good job of aggregating the preferences of the voters but damages the institution beyond repair.

In this essay I illustrate the institutional dimension of election design by way of the Academy Awards. The method by which the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences selects the nominees and winners of the Oscars has been subject to endless scrutiny and debate. I show how the traditional focus on aggregating the preferences of the voters is misguided in this case because the preferences of the voters are in many ways antithetical to the interests of the Academy as a whole. Focusing more closely on the institution allows us to make recommendations for an electoral process that will better align the preferences of the members of the Academy with the institutions interests.

Building on the analysis of the Academy, I will go on to discuss how institutional considerations come in to play in election design in three other areas: political representation, corporate voting, and judging in competitions. Explicit consideration of institutional interests will advance both a positive analysis, explaining why some election methods are used in some cases and not in others, as well as allow for a normative analysis of when institutional interests are of sufficient interest as to warrant consideration in election design.

In the end, this essay calls for a contextual approach to election design. Elections are not formal problems in aggregation of preferences. They occur within institutions with interests that may not be reflected in the choices presented to voters. Good election design requires that attention be paid to the particular interests of the institutions.

Keywords: Social Choice, elections, representation

Suggested Citation

Edelman, Paul H., 'And the Oscar Goes to...' The Academy Awards and the Institutional Dimension of Election Design (August 17, 2009). Vanderbilt Law and Economics Research Paper No. 09-23; Vanderbilt Public Law Research Paper No. 09-16. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1456529 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1456529

Paul H. Edelman (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States
615-322-0990 (Phone)
615-322-6631 (Fax)

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