Edit at 0820 on 8/25: Due to writing this post at the end of an extremely long day, I misunderstood section 3.6 and got a few things wrong. It should be corrected now; thanks to Cheryl Morgan and Kendall for keeping me on the straight and narrow.
This post is only intended to examine the potential for “No Award” to structurally damage the Hugo Awards, because I’ve now witnessed this odd rumor in a couple different places. I have less than zero interest in debating the righteousness or wrongness of people voting No Award, or discussing my own votes, or pontificating about how it might or might not affect the reputation of the awards. But matters of fact? Let’s get those straight.
Basically, voting No Award in the Hugos has zero effect on the inner workings of the awards themselves. The end. Votes of No Award over successive years might arguably have some kind of negative effect on the voting population, but will not affect the continued existence of the categories or anything like that.
Quick summary: The Hugo categories themselves are enshrined in the WSFS constitution. The only way to add, remove, or alter them is with a constitutional amendment, which takes two years to accomplish. The amendment has to be proposed one year and passed at the business meeting, and then ratified at the next year’s business meeting. You can see this process in action with the proposal of the “Best Series” category for this year. Nothing in the results of the Hugos can actually alter the existence of the awards themselves.
If that’s good enough for you, stop there. Otherwise, I’ll go ahead and get granular.
Let’s take a quick look at the places “No Award” appears in the WSFS constitution. Please note that as of this writing, this is the 2014 WSFS constitution. I don’t think it contains anything we ratified during the business meetings this weekend. But I promise, there was nothing related to “No Award” in the amendments we did ratify.
Section 3.6: “No Award”. 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 canceled for that year.
Note the phrase “marked lack of interest.” Lack of interest would be indicated by lack of voting/nominating; a vote of “No Award” still counts as an actual vote.
Under 3.8: Tallying of Nominations:
3.8.3: Any nominations for “No Award” shall be disregarded.
Pretty self explanatory; nominations for no award will be disregarded when it comes to tallying the nominations. It’s always an option on the final ballot, after all, as we’re about to see.
Under 3.10: Voting:
3.10.3: “No Award” shall be listed in each category of Hugo Award on the final ballot.
Also pretty self explanatory. “No Award” is always an option for voting.
From Section 3.11: Tallying of Votes:
3.11.1: In each category, tallying shall be as described in Section 6.4. “No Award” shall be treated as a nominee. If all remaining nominees are tied, no tie- breaking shall be done and the nominees excluding “No Award” shall be declared joint winners.
3.11.2: “No Award” shall be given whenever the total number of valid ballots cast for a specific category (excluding those cast for “No Award” in first place) is less than twenty-five percent (25%) of the total number of final Award ballots received.
3.11.3: “No Award” shall be the run-off candidate for the purposes of Section 6.5.
This determines how “No Award” is tallied from the ballots. So hey, you could technically win jointly with “No Award.” That’s… a thing. Also, this makes it so that categories that are very small and ignored relative to the total number of ballots get an automatic No Award. Note this doesn’t eliminate a category through lack of apparent interest, just makes “No Award” automatic if very few ballots are received. The categories still exist as required by the constitution.
That’s it. Those are the only places “No Award” is even mentioned in the constitution.
Fun fact: Worldcon committees are allowed (but not required) to make one and only one special Hugo category that will just exist for that year:
3.3.17: Additional Category. Not more than one special category may be created by the current Worldcon Committee with nomination and voting to be the same as for the permanent categories. The Worldcon Committee is not required to create any such category; such action by a Worldcon Committee should be under exceptional circumstances only; and the special category created by one Worldcon Committee shall not be binding on following Committees. Awards created under this paragraph shall be considered to be Hugo Awards.
I don’t believe this has happened during the time I’ve attended/paid attention to WorldCon, which has only been since 2008, but it sounds cool. (And has been used in the past to experiment, such as in 1988 when Watchmen won “Other Forms.” Wikipedia also has a list, though some of those categories were once in the WSFS constitution and then subsequently removed.) Anyway, notice with this, it’s also in line with 3.6; the concom has some discretion when it comes to administering the Hugo categories, but its choices are not in any way permanent. The categories themselves make up sections 3.3.1 through 3.3.17 of the constitution of the World Science Fiction Society. And the constitution can’t just be changed on a whim:
Section 6.6: Amendment. The WSFS Constitution may be amended by a motion passed by a simple majority at any Business Meeting but only to the extent that such motion is ratified by a simple majority at the Business Meeting of the subsequent Worldcon.
So if anything were to be changed structurally about the awards themselves, the administration, the categories, anything, the only way to do that is to get an amendment to the constitution passed by a simple majority at the business meeting, and then ratified the next year.
This would be why there was so much excitement about E Pluribus Hugo and 4 and 6 this year; both will structurally change how nominations are done and finalists are decided for the Hugos. Both got a majority vote at this year’s meeting, but will have no effect unless and until they are ratified in 2016–at which point they will change how things go in 2017.
The conclusion is, the Hugos can’t be structurally destroyed by a single messy year. Or two. Or ten. It would take a majority at two consecutive business meetings to do that. Destroyed socially? Rendered a travesty because they delivered results you personally dislike and thus the Hugos Are Over? That’s for people to argue who have a lot more patience, endurance, and time to waste than me.