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Today only, they like seeing red

For the numbers guys, ballot counting leads to a little bit of showbiz shine.

February 25, 2007|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

A few years ago, a blogger claimed to have hacked into the PricewaterhouseCoopers computers and discovered, days before the Academy Awards ceremony, the Oscar winners. The reaction at the firm was one not usually associated with accountants -- laughter.

"We knew it wasn't true because the Oscar tallies never even go near a computer," says Bradley Oltmanns, managing partner, Los Angeles office, and one of two men overseeing this year's balloting process.

In fact, anyone looking for real voting reform for the next presidential election need look no further than PricewaterhouseCoopers' downtown L.A. offices. It takes 12 staff members 1,700 man hours to count the nomination and final ballots by hand, but when they are done, there is no question of hanging chads or duplicitous computer programs. PricewaterhouseCoopers (which added the Coopers in 1998) has been doing this for 73 years and the people involved know that even one mistake and, sterling reputation notwithstanding, they're toast.

So Oltmanns can dispel the occasional rumor that a winner did not really win. Should a mistake ever be made in announcing a winner, one of the company's two representatives backstage would immediately inform the stage manager.

"Not that this has ever happened," he adds quickly.

This year he and Rick Rosas, the Los Angeles tax partner in the company's entertainment and media practice, are the only people to know for certain who the winners are before the envelopes are opened -- envelopes Oltmanns and Rosas will have stuffed and sealed themselves Saturday. And even their wives know not to ask.

The two will have overseen this year's process from the moment the firm sent the ballots out until the day after the ceremony when, traditionally, they send the winners the duplicate winning envelope. (There are always two copies.)

As glamorous as the culmination may be, most of the process is as low-tech as it gets.

Nominations are much more time-intensive to count, Oltmanns says, because they are decided through a preferential system. Voters rank five nominees in their arm of the academy and Oltmanns, Rosas and 12 staff members spend seven days determining the consensus of the top five in each category. For the final ballot count, only six staff members are required for three days, and whoever gets the most votes wins.

The counting for the final round does not begin until the day after the balloting deadline, which this year was Tuesday. Oltmanns has seen ballots arrive, by courier or by hand, at the stroke of 5, the final hour on deadline day, but he declines to say when the bulk of the voting is done -- something those behind the various campaigns would love to know.

"We're the only people who know and we're not saying," he says with an unmistakable twinkle in his eye.

In an undisclosed location that Oltmanns says changes every year, the first step is sorting the 6,000 or so envelopes, which are all numbered to ensure there are no duplications. The Oscar ballots, which are perforated into five panels, are torn apart and the counting begins.

No staff member counts all the votes in any one category, to ensure secrecy -- they count and recount portions and then give their tallies, marked on a sheet of paper, to Oltmanns and Rosas, who add them up. If a race is close, the ballots are counted again -- as many times, Oltmanns says, as is needed for the men to feel confident. Sometime on Friday evening, they declare the winners.

Well, declare may be overstating it. They circle the names of the winners, quietly, on their sheets.

"It's a very silent process," says Oltmanns who, with his easy laugh and sudden smile, is the very antithesis of the stereotypical accountant. "We're just ... counting." No catered lunches? No circuitous drives home to throw off Oscar spies?

"No," he says laughing. "One time we were all in the room counting and we looked out the window and there was a window washer. For a minute we all thought someone was spying and we were all excited. But it turned out he was just washing the windows."

On the day before the awards are handed out, Oltmanns and Rosas go to an undisclosed location to stuff two sets of envelopes. Again to preserve secrecy, they have pre-printed cards that read "And the Oscar goes to" with each of the nominated names. Oltmanns and Rosas pluck the actual winners from the stack and, in what is undoubtedly the most poignant scene of awards season pathos, shred the rest.

The two even stick the red PricewaterhouseCoopers seal on the back. (And if any presenters are reading this, the proper way to open an envelope is to pull the red ribbon under the seal on an upward diagonal.)

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