Right for the Wrong Reasons: First Thoughts on the Hugos and a Better Voting System

Last year, I wrote post titled History Will Forget The Sad Puppies. My reasoning was that the Hugo nomination chicanery was similar to the ballot stuffing at baseball's 1957 All Star Game. The TL/DR version is that the fans of the Cincinnati Reds voted early and often and got almost their entire team voted on to the All Star team. Even though no rules had been broken, Major League Baseball called shenanigans, replaced several of the players, and changed the rules to discourage this sort of behavior and the event was more or less forgotten. I thought that we'd see essentially the same dynamic at play with the Hugos. 

The people who took advantage of the broken system are also cut from a different cloth than those Reds fans in 1957 and have demonstrated that they won't go away even in the face of defeat. The Puppies were shut out of the awards last year, losing to "No Award" across the board. That brings us to another thing I was wrong about: I thought that the Sad Puppies were leading the slate-voting charge, but last year marked a transfer of power to the Rabid Puppies. This year, the Rabid Puppies again were at the forefront of gaming the nomination process and the Sad Puppies have faded from relevance.

In that one sense, I was right. History will, I think, forget the Sad Puppies, but only because they've been superseded by a more militant group.  I'm not focusing on the Puppies, though. I want to go over what's wrong with the voting process and make some suggestions as to how it might be improved.

The first question you have to ask is "What are the Hugo awards meant to reward?" Are they for the "best," most literary, or most artistic works, or for the most popular, or for the most commercially successful? Depending on the answer, you may wind up with different ideal voting systems. The question isn't answered definitively on the awards' site:

What are the Hugo Awards?

The Hugo Awards, to give them their full title, are awards for excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy. They were first awarded in 1953, and have been awarded every year since 1955. The awards are run by and voted on by fans.

"Excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy" is certainly something worth rewarding, but it doesn't give the voter a lot of instruction. I'm going to let the last sentence be my guide today. The emphasis on "fan" suggests that the fans are free to make up their own criteria for what constitutes "excellence." That leaves us with what amounts to a popularity contest, which is fine, but I wanted to make that clear before asking the next question. 

"Is the process for nominating and voting broken?" To say it's broken, you'd have to say that the eventual winner of the award is not the work adjudged to be "excellent" by the most fans, or, more simply, the most popular work. Last year, no award was given in five categories. I think you can reasonably conclude that there's a disconnect between the nomination process and science fiction and fantasy fans.* This year, the success of the Puppies slate tracked inversely with voter participation in the category. That is to say, the more people who voted, the worse the slate voters did. This suggests strongly that a small group of voters, working together, were able to influence the nominating process to a degree which creates an undesired outcome, regardless of the politics of the small group.**

This next one may be a little pro forma, but it's an important to go over the reasons: "Where is the process broken?" The problem lies in the nomination process. The system is set up to encourage this kind of abuse. The nominations are open, meaning that any work which meets the qualifications may be nominated. That sounds marvelous, but there are many, many more works published each year than any voter can reasonable keep track of. You can nominate up to five works, which is exactly how many will appear on the final ballot which obviously can result in a slate taking all the nominations. There's no minimum number of nominees a voter must submit, nor a requirement that they submit works in all categories, making it easier for slate votes to dominate more obscure categories. There's relatively little participation in the nomination process, which inflates the influence of a determined minority. About the only good thing that can be said of the nomination process is that it requires a WorldCon membership, so ballot-stuffing is difficult and expensive.

The result is that it's possible for a relatively small subset of voters to dominate the nominations in a way that cannot be overcome in the final voting.*** I think most people would agree that this is not a desired situation. This is true whether or not there are Puppies or communists or alien pod people trying to monopolize the nominations. It's a bad system, and so long as it stays like this, it will be open to this kind of gaming. Speaking of gaming, if this sort of nonsense were taking place in, say, an MMO, the moderators would smack the offenders with the ban-hammer. Major League Baseball simply decided to overrule the voters. The fact that the people who run the Hugo awards have not acted so highhandedly is admirable, but their good will hasn't fixed the problem.

There is a plan to try to minimize the influence of slate voting in the works. It's been dubbed E Pluribus Hugo. It not a change to how the nominations are submitted but instead to how they're tallied and how the finalists are selected. It's math-y but not difficult to understand. Every voter gets one "vote" per category, and that vote is split among all the works you nominate in a category. If you nominate 5 works, then all of your nominees get 20% of a vote. Then, the votes are added and the work with the lowest vote total is eliminated. At this point, it's all tallied again, and if one of your works is eliminated, then you have 4 remaining works, so yours get 25% of a vote each. This process goes until only five works remain.

It's an interesting and appealingly geeky way of dealing with the problem, but it doesn't actually address the structural problem with the nomination process. There are still so many possible works which could be nominated that the critical mass of popularity is still going to be low enough to be subject to gaming, especially in the categories with fewer votes. Worse, it's going to encourage voters to think about how many candidates to nominate based on how they think the system works. Voters having to consider the system, not the works they like, is the exact opposite of a desirable outcome. It encourages more gaming, not less. 

So, I the last question is: "How can it be fixed?"**** I have some suggestions based on what I think the issues are and what would reduce the impact of the flaws.

  • Reduce the number of nomination slots to three, or better, one. You're only going to vote for one work in the finals, so why are you nominating the one work you think deserves to win and four that you don't?  This might make it easier for another Black Genesis to get on the ballot, but it also makes running the whole ballot far more difficult. The goal isn't to shut out people who like different works than you do, it's to prevent anyone one set of tastes from getting all the nominations.
  • Set a sales minimum for nomination, and then ask voters to select from the list of qualifying works. I know sales numbers are a very un-sexy way to determine qualification, but the idea is to prevent a list (20-30?) of eligible works and have the voters select from the list, rather than leaving it open to literally every possible work. This makes it more difficult for slates to monopolize a category because voters are picking 5 (or 3, or 1) from a list, rather than selecting from hundreds or thousands of possible eligible works.
  • If there's no sales minimum, consider having a panel of people who work in the industry and in the specific category create a broad list of potential nominees (again, 20-30) and then do the same thing as above. It's not democratic, but it might just increase the "excellence" of the awards finalists and winners.
  • Require voters to nominate in all categories, or else only allow voters to vote in the finals in categories for which they nominated one or more works. Here's where I'm sympathetic to the slate-voters. They go to all the trouble to nominate five works in a category and then voters who weren't bothered to nominate alternatives turn around an vote "No Award." The goal here is to encourage more participation in the nominating process. 

I get that the people who are running the awards don't want to make massive changes to the process and they're bending over backwards to try to be reasonable, but "reasonable" isn't the only target here. The goal is to nominate works which will appeal to fandom in general and give them the opportunity to vote for the works they believe are worthy of a Hugo award.  Based on what I've seen, I'm skeptical that E Pluribus Hugo will get the job done. 

Et obliti sunt mei...

Et obliti sunt mei...

* Now that I know a little bit about the complaints of the Sad Puppies, the fact that a small cabal managed to get their own works nominated but that those works weren't reflective of the tastes of most fans is kind of funny. Or it would be, if it weren't so disappointing that so many worthy titles failed to make the ballot.

** Incidentally, this also suggests that the awards have not been influenced by the activities a small, motivated, but relatively unpopular group up to this point.  If it had been, we'd have seen the disconnect between nominations and final voting show up like it did last year. 

*** Yes, yes. Very much like the U.S. Presidential selection process. Someone had to say it.

**** Well, another good question would be "Is it worth fixing?" but I think the answer to that one is clearly "yes." The Puppies crisis has revitalized the Hugo awards. More people are aware of them, more people are participating in them, and they're getting far more press outside of the genre than they were before. I just wish the press was about "how awesome the awards are" instead of "gah, what's going on here?!?"