Hugo Voting Threshold Reform Proposal

By Olav Rokne: Over the past several weeks, a group of fans has been working on a proposal to abolish WSFS constitution clause 3.12.2, which could result in a Hugo category getting no award even when that is not the express wishes of voters. The group proposing this change to the WSFS constitution includes people who are presently or have recently been finalists in the categories most likely to be affected by 3.12.2 of the constitution.

It would be exceptionally embarrassing for a Worldcon to have to explain why a finalist would have won the Hugo except for — oops! — this bit of outdated fine print. The best course of action is to eliminate that fine print before such a circumstance arises.

The list of people who have been working on this proposal includes Olav Rokne, Amanda Wakaruk, Paul Weimer, Jason Sanford, Cora Buhlert, Camestros Felapton, Christopher J Garcia, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Joe Sherry, Adri Joy, Gideon Marcus, Lori Anderson, Kevin Anderson, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, Haley Zapal, Amy Salley, Chris M. Barkley, Mike Glyer, and Alasdair Stuart.

Here is the current draft of the proposal that we intend to present to the business meeting:


Hugo Voting Threshold Reform Proposal for the 2022 Business Meeting

Over the past several years, several Hugo Award categories have come close to not being awarded due the current wording of, but not the original intent of, 3.12.2 of the constitution.

The current text of 3.12.2

“No Award” shall be given whenever the total number of valid ballots cast for a specific category (excluding those cast for “No Award” in first place) is less than twenty-five per cent (25%) of the total number of final Award ballots received.

While this clause was designed to guard against categories in which there was a lack of interest, there has not been a significant decline in the categories most at risk of being affected by 3.12.2. Rather there has been a significant uptick in interest in other categories.

Since 2,362 final Award ballots were cast in 2021, if any category received fewer than 591 votes in the final count, then a result of “No Award” would have been declared. Fancast received 632 votes, barely scraping past that 25 per cent threshold. Fanzine (643 votes), Editor – Long Form (667 votes), and Fan Writer (680 votes) were all poised near the abyss.

For context, consider that 591 is more votes than any category received in 1963 when 3.12.2 was first proposed.

At Denvention 3 in 2008, only 302 people voted in the Fanzine category. By absolute terms, this was less than half the number that voted for Fanzine at Discon 3 in 2021, but because only 762 people voted in the Hugos overall, the category had a participation rate of 39.6 per cent, and was in no risk of falling prey to the criteria set forth in 3.12.2. Conversely, despite there being 643 votes cast in Fanzine last year, this only amounted to 27.2 per cent participation.

Worldcon has grown since the 1960s to the point at which this threshold is no longer relevant, and could even be harmful.

The fact that this threshold is based on the overall number of ballots cast in more high-profile categories (like Best Novel or Best Dramatic Presentation), it risks punishing these important and community-oriented categories (like Fancast and Fanzine) – despite the existence of substantial and sustained interest in these categories.

In an era of superhero franchises and a true renaissance of SF/F television worldwide, it is unwieldy to expect community-oriented categories to pull the same interest as multi-million dollar franchises. We do a disservice to the diversity of our community when we establish the latter as the threshold of popularity for the former.

To address this unanticipated problem, we would propose decoupling the viability threshold from the total number of final award ballots with the following proposal:

PROPOSAL – Eliminate 3.12.2

Strike the following words from the WSFS constitution:

3.12.2: “No Award” shall be given whenever the total number of valid ballots cast for a specific category (excluding those cast for “No Award” in first place) is less than twenty-five percent (25%) of the total number of final Award ballots received.


Several other options for reform of this section have been discussed, such as changing the percentage, moving the threshold to an absolute value, or creating other metrics. However, eliminating this viability test altogether is the simplest action that would solve the immediate problems faced in an era of disproportionate increases of interest in some Hugo categories.

32 thoughts on “Hugo Voting Threshold Reform Proposal

  1. Of course, another possibility would be to eliminate the multi-million dollar categories, leaving only those of community interest.

  2. I also support the proposal as written. Until now, I’d no idea this little booby trap was hiding in the Hugo Awards ballot system.

    Think what would happen if that criterion were used in general election ballots, especially in a presidential election year. Many voters don’t bother with the deep down-ballot offices such as County Clerk and Recorder. It would be most embarrassing to discover that the county clerk’s office was abolished due to lack of voter interest. Before you laugh, that is the office where we in Colorado pay our property taxes and vehicle registration fees.

  3. “[E]liminating this viability test altogether is the simplest action that would solve the immediate problems faced in an era of disproportionate increases of interest in some Hugo categories.”

    It doesn’t solve the problem of awarding Hugos in categories that most voters don’t even care enough about to vote in, which apparently was a problem when 3.12.2 was added to the constitution.

    (and I say this not because I have a strong opinion one way or the other, but rather to point out that the proposal doesn’t eliminate problems so much as it redefines what they are.)

  4. bill on June 24, 2022 at 3:21 pm said:

    It doesn’t solve the problem of awarding Hugos in categories that most voters don’t even care enough about to vote in, which apparently was a problem when 3.12.2 was added to the constitution.

    There remains a section in the rules (3.6) that allows a Worldcon committee to cancel a category due to lack of interest in any year. What the current proposal does is remove a codified mechanism for making this decision. There probably should be some rule but that’s a discussion that is going to take longer.

  5. I support the proposal.
    I believe that the majority of attendees no longer know of or care about the history of Worldcon, nor how without fans it wouldn’t exist — which certainly contributes to the relative lack of interest in the fan categories — but this should not result in their abandonment.

  6. I wholeheartedly support this proposal. I like it SO MUCH that I just may break my ongoing boycott of the Business Meeting take time out to vote for it at the Main Session.
    Here’s Hoping…

  7. My concern is whether someone, say, who calls themselves Vox, might coordinate a nomination slate. We had to vote no award in 2015, rather then give awards to deserving authors. How does the revision prevent this?

  8. mark: We had to vote no award in 2015, rather then give awards to deserving authors.

    Who is “we”? Nobody “had” to vote anything, every voter got to make their own choices.

    Can you name the “deserving authors” who got No-Awarded? I’m looking at that list, and I don’t see any.

    ETA: Also, those Hugo categories were for works, not authors. No authors got No Awarded. Only works got No Awarded.

  9. mark on June 24, 2022 at 8:35 pm said:
    My concern is whether someone, say, who calls themselves Vox, might coordinate a nomination slate. …How does the revision prevent this?

    It doesn’t prevent this at all. And it doesn’t take away the ability for fans to vote for “no award” if they believe that’s the best option.

    Instead, it removes the possibility of an accidental “no award.”

  10. Support,
    about Mark, we say what happened 2015 people where very active in voting no award. I don’t think we need the 25% clause as defence against Bad actors.

    It would mean that if a voter (lets say me) is lazy and misses a category, it doesn’t doom the category. And I would feel guilty about that. (There is one category where I never voted, btw and it is mentioned above)

    It would led to voting if you are interested. Best Video Gametryout was a case of this. There is no way I voted in this thing last year, but thanks for the Hadesrecomendation.

  11. The 25% is obviously too high now and I don’t believe the growth in Hugo voting was anticipated when it was set. Outright elimination of the clause seems a reasonable course now.

    If eliminating the clause is felt to be a step too far (and I don’t think it is) I would suggest modifying it to include a cap on the votes required to grant the award.

    E.g. ….both less than 100 votes and less than 25% of the total ballots
    Substitute another number if 100 is felt to be too few or too many.

  12. I definitely see the problems being tackled here, and I don’t oppose the proposal. But I do think there’s an uneasy balance here, that this proposal will further un-balance.

    IMO the big problem with a low-participation category isn’t that it’s not worthy or not of interest. It’s that it is so easily flooded and overwhelmed by low-hanging popular finalists.
    Imagine a hypothetical category that only 10% of Hugo voters are actually well-acquainted with. Let’s say the category has 6 excellent finalists. Five of them are known primarily within the category; the sixth is a hypothetical genre superstar called Morge R. R. Gartin.
    The immediate consequence of this is a flood of bullet votes for Gartin as finalist. This is natural and even desirable; quite likely these voters did go sample Gartin’s work, and enjoyed it.
    But what’s happened here is an amplification of the already-cumbersome facet of the Hugos as a popularity contest. The stalwarts of the category cannot meaningfully compete against a heavyweight — not a heavyweight in their category; a heavyweight in the context of the entire voting body.

    I don’t love the direction that takes the awards — a direction where we recognize vital categories, but our actual consideration of them is scattershot and easily upended.

    As a more extreme example, consider the Retro Hugo awarded to H.P. Lovecraft. That’s an extreme example both for participation numbers and for Blatantly Bad Choice Made By Voting Body, but it’s just a ridiculously easy dynamic to fall into — low participation makes a popular vote award so noisy.

    Obviously, this isn’t an issue just with the voting threshold; it’s one that affects the Hugos as a whole, and there’s no reason to single low-participation categories out specifically. But at the same time, this feels like yet another step to try and maximize the range of work the Hugos encompass, without taking any steps to see whether our voting body is up to the task. I do hope we’ll see thought and effort go into the overall balance as well.

  13. Imagine a hypothetical category that only 10% of Hugo voters are actually well-acquainted with. Let’s say the category has 6 excellent finalists. Five of them are known primarily within the category; the sixth is a hypothetical genre superstar called Morge R. R. Gartin.

    Let’s imagine that there’s such a category in 2022. And that one of the finalists is a New York Times bestselling author who’s racked up 20+ Hugo nods in prose categories.

    In this hypothetical, I guarantee that other finalists in that category would rather celebrate that best-selling author winning a fan category than to see the category get no award based on a technicality.

    And frankly, 3.12.2 is unlikely to prevent someone with a large and dedicated fanbase from winning one of the low-participation categories. If anything having 100+ superfine of one finalist voting makes it likelier that the category exceeds the 25 per cent threshold.

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  15. @Olav: The applicability is very clear, yes 🙂

    But I think we’re on different pages, on two different counts.

    The first is this:
    Repeat the scenario. Take five or six or ten years of the Hugos in these low-participation categories, going to people whose work in that category is marginal.
    Is that, then, a healthy category?
    Is it demonstrating and spotlighting the work being done in that area?
    Do people look at the finalists and recognize the value of their efforts; the importance of their niche?
    (Again — this is a problem with Hugos-as-a-popularity-contest in general; much more than with this proposal specifically. But, yes, I do think it’s a problem.
    And frankly, it’s a problem for everyone in the community, not for the finalists specifically — the fans who actually care about that category will only get more and more dispirited, and feel the award represents them less and less.)

    The second is this:
    With low enough participation, you do not need a superstar in order to get a disruption. The immediate issue with low participation is noise — and the lower participation is, the more the smallest blips and stutters can overwhelm the category.
    I don’t know about you. But I would be discouraged by a category I cared about that was, de facto and consistently, dominated by creators popular from other arenas, or by random flash-in-the-pans. For me, that would miss the entire point of having an award.

    Now, as I said, it’s certainly not that I oppose your proposal.
    I think there’s a lot of truth in explicitly accepting that Hugo voting is diverse and fragmented; we’re no longer 300 people voting on a tiny body of work we’ve all read.
    Long-term, though, I would like to see our adaptations go beyond simply letting more people vote on more categories. A voting body spread thin and non-uniformly carries problems of its own, even (or especially) a very large voting body. I think we need to be paying attention to that too, even though it’s a much harder problem than preserving existing categories or defining new ones
    The 25% rule is really the only remaining mechanism that contracts the scope of the Hugos, rather than expanding them. And while I don’t think it’s doing a particularly good job in choosing where to contract, I do think part of a full replacement of the rule (beyond the scope of this specific proposal, but IMO part of the discussion) should be figuring out where and when the right places to contract might be. If it’s not “when less than 25% of the voting body is voting in the category,” that’s fine, but then where is it?

  16. @Standback: You said you don’t oppose the proposal, but then you say that low participation categories are not healthy and a problem that needs to be solved. I understand you want to complain about the Hugos. Everybody has complaints about the Hugos. Do you have some specific ideas for improving them, other than removing low participation categories?

  17. @Tom: Not particularly practical ones, I’m afraid!

    In the past couple of years, I’ve fallen far off the wagon of following along with WSFS work. Back in Dublin, I definitely had high hopes for the committee that was re-examining the categories, but I really haven’t seen what’s become of that committee and their work since.

    The only concrete idea I’ve had that I also liked was a thought to separate the categories into a few distinct groupings. Things like: Longform, Short Fiction, Community Awards, Pro Awards.
    A division like that could let us compare apples to apples; using the grouping for the base voting number, instead of the number of voters for Best Novel or Best Dramatic Presentation. And beyond this topic of the 25% rule specifically, I think we might get a lot of insight and clarity by “disentangling” different facets of the awards from one another — seeing how the crossover looks; what the clusters are. Strengthening voting within a grouping, rather than just total votes across the whole ballot, could give us a lot — a kind of focusing mechanism (whether it’s an actual mechanism, or more just the way the community discusses and approaches the ballot).

    This is, as I say, probably not very practical as a proposal. The system is complicated enough as-is; I don’t think the existing categories fall cleanly into groupings; and in general, this whole direction is broad in scope and without an immediate benefit. I guess I’m coming at this with my refactoring hat on, heh.

    But discussions like this help get the wheels turning. Identifying a pain point isn’t the same as identifying a solution; and going with a quick fix doesn’t contradict discussing a larger underlying problem (and vice versa!). I do think the Hugos have a problem of category proliferation, and I do think that’s worth keeping in our field of vision.

  18. Standback:

    IMO the big problem with a low-participation category isn’t that it’s not worthy or not of interest.

    The solution to such a worry would be to have a minimum nomination pool. If less than 10% (number off top of head) of those nomination express any opinion about the category then it gets put to one side for that year. If sidelined for three consecutive years then it must be ratified again by the business meeting.

  19. Nickpheas on June 28, 2022 at 8:59 am said:
    Standback:

    IMO the big problem with a low-participation category isn’t that it’s not worthy or not of interest.

    The solution to such a worry would be to have a minimum nomination pool. If less than 10% (number off top of head) of those nomination express any opinion about the category then it gets put to one side for that year. If sidelined for three consecutive years then it must be ratified again by the business meeting.

    I would wholeheartedly support this. The threshold at the nominations stage would be far better than at the final voting stage.

    Like, imagine being a finalist in a category and finding out at the ceremony that the category had been scrubbed? How would that feel?

  20. I’m a big time supporter of this one, and like all things Hugo, it’s incredibly personal.

    Awards are about values. They’re about what a community believes has value, and the definition of value can be quite different from person to person. Me, it’s all about emotional value, about what creations in our community make me feel. I have many friends for whom it’s all about intellectual value, about what it makes them think. I imagine most fall somewhere in-between.

    The thing about the awards that tend to be on the lower end of the numbers is that, for me, they’re the ones that make me feel. Am I rare? Probably. Am I alone? I sincerely doubt it.

    WorldCon, historically, has valued things like fanzines, whacky neighbor the Semi-pro, and their grandkids the fancast. I think we still have a core that values those things greatly. The growth at the top of the ballot is great, but honestly I don’t think it’s changed what we as a community value – fannish expression and creation. This proposal honors that tradition in a very real way.

  21. @Nickpheas:

    The solution to such a worry would be to have a minimum nomination pool. If less than 10% (number off top of head) of those nomination express any opinion about the category then it gets put to one side for that year. If sidelined for three consecutive years then it must be ratified again by the business meeting.

    That would make a lot of sense, IMO.

    I think there’s a kind of ingrained assumption in the mechanism, that nominations can afford to be more niche/expert than voting is. Like, the people who are really knowledgeable about, I don’t know, translated fanzines, can do a good job nominating finalists for Best Fanzine in Translation, and then the entire voting body can read the finalists, hemm and haw and deliberate, and vote on them. It’s a spotlight mechanism — the nominations choose where the spotlight focuses, and then everybody gets to see what it shines on.

    If that’s the mental model, though, then I think it needs updating.
    I definitely don’t love the idea that niche categories be eradicated — that a category that doesn’t get enough action at nominations would be considered not of interest. It might make sense, though, and has the advantage of being simple to explain and implement.

  22. Seeing as how people seem generally approving of my nomination based ‘drop the category’ concept, I did a bit of number crunching.

    Looking at the published nomination states from 2017-2021 (Puppies distort the previous two years, and before that the culture is somewhat different).

    No category has ever secured contributions from less than 10% of the nominating pool. This would be a safe threshold to pick if the desire was to keep everything so long as they retained the current levels of interest.

    A 15% threshold would have twice seen category eliminations, both in 2020, when Fanzine and Fan Artist fell below that mark.

    A 20% threshold would have consistently ousted Fan Artist, and would have once knocked out Pro Artist as well.

    A 25% threshold would have dramatic impact, knocking out Editor, Long Form over the last three years and Graphic Story over the last two. I don’t think anyone wants that.

    Interestingly, the category I most often see talked down, Fancast, seems to be the best supported fan category at nomination stage, having only fallen below 25% once, and that by 2 votes in 2020. Fan writer is one of the categories showing most dramatic change: In 2017 32.5% of nominators had an opinion, by 2020 this had dropped to 21.5% (2020 is an odd year, and it had bounced back to 29.2% last year).

    A weighted average of the last five years comes out like:

    Novel 84.35%
    Novella 60.10%
    Novelette 39.47%
    Short Story 46.73%
    Series 53.45%
    Related Work 38.72%
    Graphic Story 29.60%
    Dramatic, Long 58.42%
    Dramatic, Short 42.10%
    Editor, Short 32.69%
    Editor, Long 25.96%
    Pro Artist 27.52%
    Semi Prozine 28.63%
    Fanzine 20.24%
    Fancast 27.10%
    Fan Writer 27.87%
    Fan Artist 17.72%
    Lodestar 32.76%
    Astounding 34.32%

    (ETA: Bah, all my formatting stripped out…)

    Can’t say I’m terribly surprised by this. Fan Artist is one of the ones I often fail to nominate in, the field being so huge I rely on others to come up interesting things to look at. Editor Long Form – who knows who edited what, and just what their contribution to the manuscript might have been?

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  24. I’m against the proposal, because I already think there’s too many categories and I think this could be away to get rid of the least popular. But I would support a proposal to have the minimum vote count moved from the finalist stage to the nomination stage.

    I think NickPheas has got the right of it.

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