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The Five Percent Rule

Originally published at Cheryl's Mewsings. Please leave any comments there.

Hugo Award LogoEvery year when the Hugo Award nominees or winners are announced, someone finds something to complain about. This year one of the obvious targets is the fact that only three works made it onto the ballot for Short Story because of something called the “5% Rule”. I have seen this described as “shameful”, as if some dreadful moral failing can be ascribed to, well, someone. Perhaps the mysterious “They”, who are often cited as the secret cabal that decides who gets what in the Hugos. As is usually the case, this is more an issue of statistics and rules than any deliberate malfeasance.

We should start with a few facts. This rule is not new. It has been in force longer than I have been involved with the Hugos, and has been invoked before. Kevin says it dates back to 1980. It does not apply only to the Short Story category. It is simply that the typical distribution of nominations in that category makes it more likely to fall foul of the rule than other categories. There is no conspiracy to defraud short story writers of their rightful nominations. Indeed, given that the Hugos have categories for three different lengths of short fiction, you could argue that they have more chances at a rocket than anyone else.

So what is this rule? What does it say, and why is it there? Here is the actual text from the WSFS Constitution:

3.8.5: No nominee shall appear on the final Award ballot if it received fewer nominations than five percent (5%) of the number of ballots listing one or more nominations in that category, except that the first three eligible nominees, including any ties, shall always be listed.

The first thing to note here is that whoever wrote the rule was well aware that it could result in a fairly thin category; hence the stipulation that there must always be at least three nominees. It is possible, though not likely, that none of the three stories on the ballot this year achieved 5% of the vote.

The purpose of the rule, fairly obviously, is that works must have a reasonable groundswell of support in order to get on the ballot. However, the reason why that might be a concern is not so obvious. So I’d like to take you all the way back in time to 2007.

That’s not long ago, but we’ve seen a huge increase in interest in the Hugos in recent years. In 2007, with Worldcon being held in Japan, only 409 people participated in the nominating stage of the awards (compared to 1343 this year). In Short Story only 214 people submitted nominations, which was actually quite high. For Fan Artist the number was 141 (statistics here). So the cut-off for getting on the ballot in Short Story was just 11 votes. For Fan Artist it was only 8.

There are two points to consider here. The first is, would you really want someone to be able to get on the ballot with less than 8 votes? Thankfully, for Fan Artist that year it wasn’t a problem. All of the people who did get on the ballot had well over the limit, because it was a case of the usual suspects getting nominations. For Short Story, however, there are different stories each year, and the spread of votes can be very broad and flat. All five nominees got over the 11 vote limit, but in the runners up there was one story on 14, one on 13, two on 12, two on 11, one on 10 and four on 9 (data here). It is all very tight. Ties for 5th place in Short Story are by no means unknown. And if the cut-off point is very low the chances of a 3- or 4-way tie for 5th place are quite high. We don’t want to be in a position where one vote could make a massive difference to how many people get on the ballot.

These days, of course, we have a lot more participation. The number of votes required to meet the magic 5% in Short Story this year was 34. We have no idea what the 4th and 5th place stories got, but I venture to suggest that the chances of a multi-way tie for 5th are a lot less than they would be if the cut-off was 11.

If we do want to make a change to the rule, what I would suggest is that we replace the limit of 5% with something like “5% or 30 votes, whichever is lower”. Obviously 30 is a number I have plucked out of the air, and I’m sure that there will be people who think it is shameful that any work should get on the ballot with less than a much larger number of votes. It is, however, a simple and workable solution, and in my opinion far better than abandoning the 5% rule altogether, which some people were calling for last night.

It would, of course, help us to make a decision if we knew the actual nominating numbers for Short Story this year. LoneStarCon 3 can’t release the numbers of votes for the three nominees, as that could influence the final ballot. However, they might feel that they can release the numbers (but not titles) of the stories that finished in 4th down to 10th. If it turns out that none of them got more than, say, 10 votes I’d venture to suggest that we are better off without them. If, on the other hand, 4th and 5th got 33 and 31 votes respectively then I think they deserved to be included.

Now it is up to fandom to decide what it wants. While not everyone can attend the Business Meeting, I’m sure that online debate will influence the opinions of people who can go. Have at it.