Top-Secret Ballots
Accountants Step Up Security When It's Time for Award Shows

By RiSHAWN BIDDLE
Staff Reporter

Greg Garrison admits to getting a little antsy about anyone nosing around PricewaterhouseCoopers' offices before Oscar night. Even window washers.

Garrison, who heads up the accountancy's ballot-counting work for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, remembers one year when he noticed a couple of men cleaning windows near where he and another partner were tallying votes. They quickly shuttered the blinds. "We were worried that somebody was trying to breach our security," he said.

The tabulating is now done in a windowless conference room at PricewaterhouseCoopers' downtown L.A. offices. But every year, security for Oscar balloting is a concern. With prestige and millions of dollars on the line, there's always room for mischief.

Ballots for the first Oscars were counted right in front of the audience during the first ceremony in 1929. But a breach in security the release of the names of Oscar winners before the 1934 ceremony forced the Academy to hire what is now PricewaterhouseCoopers to handle ballot-counting. A couple of glitches have occurred since then, including last month, when they Academy had to reprint 247 nominating ballots designated for European members after the British post office lost the first batch.

'Airtight, bulletproof'

Oscar results remain a well-kept secret until it's time to rip open those envelopes. "We take great care to make sure there are no surprises," said Garrison's partner, Rick Rosas (photo).

Is tabulating awards ballots a small but prestigious part of an accountancy's business? Yes. Competitive? No.

Once a firm is hired by one of the awards-granting groups, it usually keeps the business. PricewaterhouseCoopers itself has had the Oscar account for 69 years while Ernst & Young has tabulated votes for the Emmys for 15.

"Everything has to be airtight, bulletproof," said Mel Masuda, co-leader of Ernst & Young's entertainment practice who oversees ballot counting for both the Emmys and Golden Globe Awards.

The various show business groups take different approaches in keeping their ballots safe. On Emmy night, not only do the two Ernst & Young accountants arrive at different times, sometimes neither one is carrying the actual results in those shiny aluminum briefcases. Garrison and Rosas, on the other hand, have the results in hand on Oscar night, and make their appearance on the red carpet.

Most of the methods used in tabulating results for other awards were first pioneered for the Oscars.

The security measures begin with the delivery of the ballots by the Academy directly to Garrison and Rosas, who pack them on a mail truck, this year under the watchful eye of the postmaster general, John Potter. Oscar ballots aren't counted until the day after voting closes. Emmy ballots are counted as soon as they arrive.

To keep things tight, PricewaterhouseCoopers restricts the information flow. It whittles the staff of ballot-counters usually its top-performing accountants from 12 to eight during the ballot-counting process. The headcount is reduced even further during the final tally, until only Garrison and Rosas remain.

To confuse anyone trying to guess who made the first cut, ballots are divided across categories, while ballot-counters are not only banned from talking to friends and family after work, they're not even allowed to converse with one another while on the job.

Postal lockbox

While counted ballots are stored inside PricewaterhouseCoopers' safe at its Hope Street offices, they get mixed together so as not to give anything away. "Nobody knows anything until we count the ballots. And afterwards, Greg and I are the only ones who know who the winners are," said Rosas.

There have been a few changes in the process over the years.

Ballots used to go through the firm's mailroom, then immediately to a room where they were locked up until the end of voting. These days, the U.S. Postal Service delivers them directly to a lockbox at its Hope Street offices.

Another addition: Special marks on ballots, as well as a number matched to each member to prevent counterfeiting. Marked ballots that don't match are tossed out, but they haven't had to throw any out so far.

One question that occasionally crops up is whether Academy members, many of whom are working on location, actually watch the movies they're voting on. The fear: That a member's assistant may actually be doing the voting.

The Academy requires voters to sign affidavits certifying that they watched movies in five specialized categories, including Best Foreign Film, but it doesn't require such certification for all categories, something the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences requires.

For the Oscars, Garrison and Rosas usually arrive together, accompanied by two off-duty police officers, and wait in the Green Room until show time. Then they're placed on opposite ends of the stage; Garrison stands where the winners walk off while Rosas gets a close-up view of the host, this year, comedian Billy Crystal.

For Garrison and Rosas, who spend most of the year toiling in anonymity, it's a thrilling night. "It's the ultimate Walter Mitty experience," said Rosas. "You feel nervousness and anxiety."

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