The Hugo Kill Switch

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”

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.”

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.

15 responses to “The Hugo Kill Switch”

  1. So, thinking about the problem of limits, An absolute limit loses proportionality – if the votes are high a tiny proportion can give out an award. If the votes are low, a large proportion of voters could still fail to produce a winner

    If we’re only concerned about getting a minimum number of voters – then it’s not a problem. If the vote falls below that minimum then we don’t want to give out an award.

    If we want to maintain some idea of proportionality we can set both a percentage limit and a absolute limit and only “No Award” if it falls below both limits. The weakness is that a small number of voters can decide a category if the total number of voters is low, but I’m not sure that’s much of a problem.

    If we want a belt-and-braces solution we set a (low) absolute minimum and targets for the percentage and absolute vote. “No Award” comes in if the vote falls below the absolute minimum or if it falls to achieve either target. But I think either of the other two options would be good enough and simpler.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well expressed but I think the question arises as to why, functionally, we want proportionality in this case? I’m not saying there’s no good reason for proportionality, just that there isn’t one that has struck me yet.


      • The only reason I can think of is as a measure of interest. If only 1% of the people who vote for the Hugos vote for a particular category, is it worth keeping it?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Sure but there’s a difference to me if that X% is 10 people or 200 people. In the second case it’s not popular with Hugo voters as a whole but there’s clearly a group of people interested in it. Maybe it shouldn’t be a Hugo or maybe its OK to have niche Hugos but it’s a thing. If it’s 10 people then genuinely nobody cares.


  2. “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”

    In addition to this, I also kind of like the idea that if voters show complete apathy towards a category, there should be a quicker, more efficent way of removing it than waiting for someone to take the initiative to remove it through the BM.

    But this is cruel to the finalists. Therefore, this type of cutof should be at the nomination level. If there’s few nominations, the category is canceled.

    An alternative: If a category falls below a certain treshold, it’s still awarded that year but it’s automatically brought up before the business meeting. Unless the meeting votes to keep the category, it gets removed.

    (No, I’m not really serious about that last suggestion.)

    Liked by 2 people

  3. It’s a tricky problem. While it would be a pity to lose some of the lesser categories, it might be a function of how the system is meant to work? If there is insufficient interest, why not remove them. An argument can be made that there are currently too many categories & members don’t always have the time & inclination to nominate & vote in all the categories. A more condensed group of categories might be a good thing no?


    • I don’t think it’s a problem that fewer people are interested in fanzines and fancasts, with zero marketing budgets and specialist subject matter, than in the latest Marvel blockbuster. As the many hundreds of votes in these categories demonstrate, there’s plenty of interest to justify making an award. These categories are at risk not because of a lack of interest in this work, but because of the huge and growing interest in science fiction and fantasy in general and in Hugo voting in particular. That’s because of the success of initiatives like the Hugo Voter Packet.

      (And yes, I have skin in this game. As a previous Hugo winner I cannot imagine what it would be like to discover that a category I was a finalist in had not been awarded due to this rule, despite far more voters voting in the Hugo than in any other set of awards for an activity).

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I dunno. I think it makes sense to simply not give awards in categories where there’s not enough participation. If that happens enough times in a row, then the Business Meeting would have a good reason to simply drop that award. The question is whether a flat percentage is the most sensible measure mathematically. That depends a lot on what we’re actually trying to accomplish. E.g. if we assign a cost to an award (e.g. from people having to talk about it before the ceremony and sit through it at the presentation) and then a benefit (e.g. based on the number of people interested in the category) we might come up with something. You’d probably do a lot better if you included an option for everyone to explicitly vote “I don’t think this category ought to exist” and then look at what fraction of voters tick that box.

    As far as the impact on the Hugo nominees goes, as a former nominee, I felt a lot of the fun was the reception with lots of famous writers and the primo seating at the event itself. Of course I never had any expectation we’d actually win anything so my feelings may not be typical. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • If we could assume that most votes were sincere then I think the best option would be to have a”lets not have this category this year” as an option at the nomination stage. That gets to the nub of the issue and makes it an affirmed statement by members.

      However, while that ticks a lot of my mental boxes it fails the “how would shitty people use this” test.


        • Neat and nicer than a category been cancelled on the finalists. Still, it might still sit a little sourly on the winner to hear that people also voted to close the category (although, I guess that could have a positive spin: “I was so good that they decided nobody could better me and close the award”)


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