The people at The Hugo Book Club Blog (Olav Rokne & Amanda Wakaruk) are on a high-stakes mission to defuse a time bomb. Deep within the WSFS constitution is a hidden switch that is creeping ever closer to hitting some beloved Hugo Award categories. Can a rag-tag team save the Fan categories before the timer reaches zero?!
OK, I’m exaggerating for effect. You can’t actually kill a category forever but nonetheless, despite historically large numbers of people voting, some “down-ballot” categories have come close to having no winners declared because of a specific clause in the rules.
This is the clause in question:
“3.12.2: “No Award” shall be given whenever the total number of valid ballots cast for a specific category (excluding those cast for “NoAward” in first place) is less than twenty-five percent (25%) of the total number of final Award ballots received”https://www.wsfs.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/WSFS-Constitution-as-of-December-18-2021.pdf
Back in March, The Hugo Book Club Blog gave a rundown on the history of the clause:
“Section 3.12.2 has a long and interesting history, with the original version of the rule appearing in the 1964 Constitution, having been added in the wake of concerns over the remarkably small number of voters participating in the 1963 Hugo Awards process. At this time, there was no specific threshold, but rather the rules provided Hugo Administrators the ability to nix a category based on “a marked lack of interest in the category on the part of voters.”https://hugoclub.blogspot.com/2022/03/the-25-per-cent-solution.html
It should be noted that this was added at a time when fewer than 200 people participated in the nominating process, and fewer than 300 people voted on the final ballot. Rules crafted for the circumstances of the 1960s and 1970s do not necessarily work in the context of the 2020s.
Because of missing documents, we cannot pin down exactly when the rule in its current form was codified, but it was either in 1978 or 1979. As far as we can tell, this clarification was based on the work of Ben Yalow. By adding a specific threshold of 25 per cent to the rule, his proposal helped bring clarity to the process, and ensured that categories weren’t dismissed on the whim of any given committee.”
The problem is that as Hugo Award participation has increased over the decades the relative participation in each category has shifted and more categories have been added. Consequently, some categories have much higher numbers in absolute terms but less participation as a proportion of total votes. This has led multiple categories to come close to the 25% shutoff.
Some of those categories I’m distinctly “meh” about. For example, I really don’t think Best Editor Long Form makes a lot of sense as a Hugo. Other categories I like but maybe do need reform (Best Fan writer) but NONE of those are categories that I think should get No Award based on this rule.
To put it simply NOT VOTING in a category is not the same act as voting for NO AWARD. Those are two completely different things. If I want to vote No Award, I can do so and in fact HAVE done so, as have a whole bunch of Hugo voters. Heck, I’ve written a whole book centred on a time when No Award several categories (available in your second favourite online bookstores now!). The current clause confuses relative apathy or indecision with an active vote against the candidates.
But don’t we need some sort of “quorum” for a category? Maybe but I’d argue that an absolute number is a better choice. Think back to the original issue. Back in the early 60’s a very small number of voters voted in some categories, essentially passing the decision on who won to a few individuals. It’s not unreasonable to say that we don’t want the decision on who wins a Hugo to fall to a small self-appointed committee or group of friends but that suggests that we want a number of voters that is “enough”. Deciding what counts as “enough” is arbitrary whether we do it as an absolute number or a percentage but the point is that a Hugo Award should be decided by a body of people. 100 is as good a number as any — “enough” in the sense that you can treat it numerically as something other than individuals.
Having said that…well there are downsides to an absolute cut-off as well. Sure, it would stop current categories being No Awarded by default but if numbers dropped overall then instead of just one category falling to Noah Ward, he might sweep a whole bunch in one go!
Olav & Amanda have been working on a proposal for the Business meeting. They have taken the smart step of focusing JUST on removing the clause and are not suggesting a replacement. I think that’s the right choice. There are already three other mechanisms in place for a problematic category:
- Members can vote No Award (an extreme option but one that has proven effective)
- Members can amend the rules in the Business meeting to remove a category (an infrequently used option)
- A more vague clause Section 3.6 “At the discretion of an individual Worldcon Committee, if the lack of nominations or final votes in a specific category shows a marked lack of interest in that category on the part of the voters, the Award in that category shall be cancelled for that year” (an option that Hugo administrators would rather not use)
Removing clause 3.12.2 without replacing it with a different “cancelled due to lack of interest” clause is the right step but it doesn’t preclude others from coming up with a better clause that could be used. Maybe it should be a cut-off in the nomination process for example — that at least would spare finalists discovering on the Award night that they had lost to No Award by default having gone through the emotional journey of thinking they had a chance of a rocket.
I think there’s a good debate to be had on how to fix the rules on this broader issue but in the meantime and as a first step we should kill the kill switch that is 3.12.2 and so I’m signing on to this motion along with a whole bunch of other cool people.