This is probably going to be a shorter list than you might expect, and the items on it might surprise you. Again, these are just my opinions.
- Conflicts of Interest. Personally, my biggest problem with the Ursas is that the staff are occasionally involved in nominated works, and refuse to step back from the process when that happens. Their comment on that is “there’s nobody else to do this job,” on which I call shenanigans. In a fandom of at minimum 50,000 people, if you cannot find one spare person to fill any role, then it’s because you haven’t tried. Most awards are conducted by bodies uninvolved with the nominated works. I recognize that we are a small fandom, but keeping creators out of the voting process shouldn’t even be a question.
- Publicity. The Ursas do an atrocious job (better in the last couple years, but still terrible) of letting people know they exist. The winners the last few years have been broken by Twitter, an LJ post from a con-goer who attended the awards ceremony, or not at all until two days later when the Ursas finally decided to post them.
- Transparency. The Hugos post complete breakdowns of their votes. From the Ursas, we get “over 1300 voters cast ballots” (citation below) without any information about individual categories. Other people cite smaller numbers of ballots, in the low hundreds. In the early days of the Ursas, I believe this was done to hide the fact that there were a small number of ballots cast. If they really are seeing over a thousand ballots, then why not show the breakdowns?
A lot of people use the term “legitimacy” to complain about the Ursas (as in “lack of”), either because they don’t like the choices, or because they don’t like the process, but the fact is that “legitimacy” is the wrong word to use. The Ursas have never concealed what they do, and there has never (to my knowledge) been any doubt cast on the workings behind the awards. As far as the legitimacy of the Ursa winners as representative of the fandom, well, take a look at some of the numbers around the awards the Ursas were modeled after, the Hugos and Nebulas:
1094 ballots were cast in the 2010 Hugo Awards (http://www.aussiecon4.org/hugoawards/files/2010HugoVotingReport.pdf, though it should also be remembered that at domestic WorldCons the voter totals are probably higher); I couldn’t find numbers for the Nebulas, but it’s restricted to SFWA members, and sfwa.org lists their membership at around 1,500. According to the Ursa Major Livejournal Community, “over 1300” voters cast ballots in the awards (http://ursamajorawards.livejournal.com/5990.html).
So despite wildly varying estimates of the size of the furry fandom, and generally accepted consensus that furry < F/SF (by the numbers, not as a denoter of quality or anything), the Ursas get about the same raw numbers—and therefore, one would assume, a higher percentage—as the more prestigious Hugo and Nebula awards. And the Hugo and Nebulas are—wait for it—awarded by popular vote (the Nebulas are popular vote from a smaller group, people who have published science fiction or fantasy, but they’re still not juried).
But, you say, nobody complains about the Hugos and Nebulas the way they do about the Ursas! Ah, if you said that then you just aren’t listening. Witness: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2011/08/25/late-hugo-notes/. Relevant excerpt: “There’s always post-Hugo kvetching, for the same reason there’s pre-Hugo kvetching, which is, people like to kvetch, and/or they have a hard time internalizing that their own tastes are not in fact an objective standard of quality. I do think there’s a core of commenters whose problem internalizing that other people have other tastes is overlaid with a more-than-mild contempt for fandom, i.e., “Oh, fandom. You’ve shown again why you can’t be trusted to pick awards, you smelly, chunky people of common tastes, you.” Fandom does what fandom does with folks like that: it ignores them, which I think is generally the correct response to such wholly unwarranted condescension.”
Sound familiar? Yeah. More on that in the next part.