Editorials & Opinion

XTRA Debate: A call to end simulated votes

Days after the Eurovision Song Contest took place, we heard how the European Broadcasting Union were forced to change the results in hindsight. The problem? A wrongly calculated simulated Belarusian jury vote. The jury voting got a different winner due to this issue. In this debate, we’re going to take a look at these simulated votes. Nick will explain why he’s not a fan and of course come up with possible solutions.

What is a simulated vote?

The simulated vote is a new phenomenon in the Eurovision Song Contest. When the new voting system saw the light back in 2016,we saw the televoting and jury points as two separate voting. As we all know, we now first see all jury results. Afterwards, we get the public result where all points have already been combined.

However, there’s a slight issue for countries where either televoting or juries cannot actually take place. We spoke about that when the new voting system was introduced, as you can read here. In practice, it comes down to this: If a country cannot deliver either set of votes, the EBU will make up the result themselves based on a pre-determined group of countries. We however never have certainty who’s part of that pre-determined group.

With the votes of those pre-determined countries, the EBU (or in fact: their partners who monitor the voting at Ernst & Young) decide where the points in question go. The country itself has absolutely nothing to do with the set of votes put to their name.

Back then, the EBU did not provide anyone with further details of this would actually work. Which countries would be part of such a ‘pre-determined group’? Are those the ones with similar voting patterns or regional choices? Only this year we found out – thanks to Belarus.

Pot based decisions for simulated votes

Now, we’ve praised Twitter user @euro_bruno a lot over the week, but he’s also responsible for figuring out how EBU actually calculate these simulated votes. The countries they use are those from the same pot. In the case of Belarus, this came down to Georgia, Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

For those who missed it: Belarus had their jury result disqualified after the semifinal, as the jury spoke publicly about their favourites. Instead, a simulated vote was used for the Belarusian jury votes. And that all went horribly wrong.

Does Belarus have an issue with Russia?

Back to the original point: The pot. The pot in question brings a couple of issues when you want to use these to determine a set of votes. For example, both Georgia and Russia put Azerbaijan in their top two. However, we all know Armenia would not do that: They put Azerbaijan dead last. As a result, Chingiz fell like a brick on the ‘Belarusian’ jury vote. The same happened to Sergey Lazarev, who was ranked last by the Georgian jurors. These, dare we say, political motives definitely impacted the Belarusian votes, even though Belarus themselves probably would have had no issue voting for Azerbaijan or Russia.

Note how this could be the case for any pot where countries have specific relations with each other. This is an example of what could happen.

You need my votes on replay

The other country we’re talking about when it comes to simulated votes is San Marino. The microstate are a certainty when it comes to having a simulated vote: They can physically not provide a televoting. So we always have a made up result from them in televoting.

Interestingly, our statistical man Vincent Mazoyer was on top of the numbers to see where the Sammarinese televote came from. We know it probably must have contained Cyprus, but it was not based on the pot. The average result of Romania, Moldova, Greece and Cyprus – those in the same pot as San Marino – does not add up to the Sammarinese televote. That means that the EBU do not even have a standard method to determine which countries they use. Whereas Belarus had their pot, San Marino very likely didn’t. All we can do is make assumptions on who they did use.

San Marino gave ten televoting points to Greece. That is remarkable, as only Cyprus and Albania gave points to Katerine Duska. What actually is the basis for a simulated Sammarinese televote? What do the EBU, or Digame, actually use? And who do they use? Based on their votes, you’d guess it’s Cyprus, Albania and surely Italy – but certainty about that can’t be given.

All in all, this system does not work. The votes have nothing to do with the actual countries they claim to represent. They’re made up based on the most similar countries, however not with the same political or diaspora tendencies in voting. There was no reason for Belarus to mark down Russia or Azerbaijan, or for San Marino to vote up Greece or Cyprus.

This year, a made up vote changed the jury result. Had the juries been nullified from Belarus, Sweden would have won the jury voting – as we all thought before the EBU clarified the issues of the reverse calculation. Imagine the outcry if a Sammarinese televote would decide the difference between winning and coming second in the total vote.

Power to the countries

I remember in 2016, SMRTV had a major outcry over the rule we explained above – and rightfully so. Half of their points would, with this system, not come from themselves. However, four contests later and we do not have a solution yet. Below I’ll try to come up with a different system for both situations: What to do if you need to disqualify a jury? And what to do if you cannot do televoting? We’ll start with the latter.

San Marino for the Sammarinese

When votes need to represent how the Sammarinese people would vote, they should actually do so. In case televoting lines are blocked or, like San Marino, you don’t actually have the opportunity of holding a televote, you need a back-up in the country itself. The solution for this is, in my eyes, a people’s jury. To provide San Marino’s televote, you would call together a group of 25 to 50 people who represent Sammarinese society: Men, women, aged 18, aged 80, higher education, no education, cab drivers, muncipal councillors and chefs – you name it. Just to make sure you can actually call it ‘the people’s choice’. Such a back-up could be in place for every country. It would be a logistical challenge, but a fairer outcome than simply making up votes.

A people’s jury would need to vote similar to how juries do it. However, they would not represent ‘musical professionals’, but simply the people of San Marino. They would give a voice to those in the microstate. It’s obviously not a perfect solution, as you still rely on a relatively small group of people, but at least these people would be Sammarinese and not Greek, Cypriot, Romanian, Moldovan or Maltese.

Why not call for reserves?

What I do not get about the situation in Belarus is the fact that a simulated vote was used at all. The jury received their notice of disqualification a few days before the Grand Final. My solution here really is the most simple one you could imagine and one we’ve all mentioned before.

Why did EBU and BRTC not try to put together a new jury? Finding five music professionals – looking at how that term can be interpreted from singers to journalists and everything inbetween – would not have been an issue in Belarus. A new jury would have completely taken away all the issues of a simulated vote.

However, what do you do when the jury votes need to be disqualified during the show due to irregularities? Such decisions took place in 2014 (Georgia) and 2015 (North Macedonia and Montenegro). In such cases, you don’t have a back-up ready, unless you put a separate back-up jury in a second room. However, you cannot have endless back-ups. You need a different solution.

More likely however would be to duplicate the televoting. It is far from ideal, but at least those votes would represent the country. A duplicated vote would, in my eyes, definitely be preferable over a made up vote. Even as a last resort, something that simply isn’t real would never get my preference.

Simulated votes in short

In short: A simulation doesn’t do anyone any good. The bottom line of a simulated vote is that they are fake. I am sure the EBU have done it with the best intentions, but there are too many implications to a simulated vote to actually be happy with the outcomes. And yes, the Belarusian jury was an incident. The Sammarinese televote, however, is a factor every single year.

This year, a simulated vote changed the jury winner. Imagine simulated votes changing the one takes the trophy. It would be a nightmare.

What others had to say: Oliver

An issue with the post-2016 system is that it requires a valid vote of both the jury and televote to succeed. A nullified televote can be hidden away through the ways in which it is announced… but with each nations jury visible to all it becomes tricky. How many backups can the EBU realistically put in place? Frankly, we have had juries back in the contest for a decade now. There surely must be some form of basic training/competency test for ensuring each vote complies with the rules and regulations of the contest. Signing a Non-disclosure agreement (NDA) may be a bit extreme, but the incident with Belarus is not the first time a juror has broken the rules. Shoutout to the Russian juror in 2016 who periscoped her votes…

A simulated vote seems like an easy and quick means for the EBU to fill in the gaps in the event something goes wrong. However, greater clarity must be made as to how this is achieved. A simulated vote warps an individuals voting power.

Normally, a juror has a 20% voting stake of a 50% total vote. Personally I think the jury should be bigger… but fine. Should a country be selected for a ‘simulated’ vote each juror has a 20% stake IN ADDITION to an undetermined vote share of another country. A juror or two with ‘random’ scores across different countries that deviate from the national set of votes could easily warp the simulated country… Messy!

Pot of luck or kingmakers?

Placing countries in pots are helpful to split up the semis… but to determine voting patterns it is really problematic. This year, Belarus, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine were placed in pot 3. Removing Ukraine for obvious reasons makes five countries. Ignoring Belarus makes four.

As Nick identifies, it is usually a safe bet to assume Armenia and Azerbaijan will place each other last respectively in the jury vote, regardless of the song. Surely this would disadvantage Azerbaijan? Armenia too had they qualified!

Granted, this would be less of a contentious issue if there was a flaw in the jury in the Scandinavian block. But seen as the pots do fluctuate from year to year, for the ‘floater’ countries like Switzerland or Moldova seem to be kingmakers of a flawed system.

A people’s vote?

I like the idea of a ‘people’s jury’ and could certainly be an elixir for participating micro-states who, for whatever reason, are unable to meet the televote threshold/requirements. We are assuming that San Marino’s televote is determined in the same way as the ‘made-up’ jury from Belarus… but it should not be up to the fandom to search it out. The EBU should outline what countries they have selected to help substitute the televote. Given the geography, surely it should always contain Italy? Or should San Marino be reflected by 40 countries as a collective? There isn’t an ideal solution.

But there are flaws with a ‘people’s jury’ too. A few issues that would need to be addressed:

  • How will the group be selected?
  • Will they be publicly named (therefore adding the susceptibility of corruption claims) or anonymous?
  • Will a similar set of demographics be required in the people’s jury as the normal jury? (different background, age, sex etc.)

To me, a simulation should be used as a last-resort option. More thinking is definitely required to ensure the contest remains fair, controversy-free and transparent in its procedures. Simulated votes are fake, but I don’t know if that is necessarily a bad thing? If a country does not have the means or infrastructure to comply with the standard rules then what?

What happened with Belarus is not ideal, but things happen. I’m sure in the years to come the EBU will have to address the situation in light of controversy and an undermining of authority.

What do you think about the simulated votes in the Eurovision Song Contest? Is it the way forward or should they end as soon as possible? Let us know!

Nick van Lith

I'm one of the founding members of ESCXTRA.com. Eleven years after the start, I'm proud to say that I am now the Editor-in-Chief of this wonderful website. When I'm not doing Eurovision stuff, you should be able to find me teaching German to kids... And cheering on everything and everyone Greek, pretty much. Pame Ellada!

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