"Ain't I A Voter?" Voting Rights for Women

"Ain't I A Voter?" Voting Rights for Women

By Dr. Wilma Rule and Steven Hill

A version of this article was published in Ms., September-October 1996

Seventy five years ago this year the 19th Amendment gave American women the right to vote. Three quarters of a century later, women remain -- by far -- the most underrepresented "minority" group in the United States. Women are the majority, comprising over fifty percent of the population, yet they make up only 11% of the U.S. House of Representatives and 8% of the U.S. Senate. In state and local legislatures, women average one out of every five legislators. According to United Nation reports, the Unite d States ranks 24th of 54 western democracies in terms of women's representation in national legislatures.

Something is woefully wrong. The Year of the Woman has come and gone, and women are only marginally closer toward a goal of political equality. What, if anything, can be done?

The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits gender discrimination in employment. But scant attention has been given to understanding why women are so vastly underrepresented, or to enacting a law comparable to the Civil Rights Act prohibiting gender discriminati on against women in elections. The 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was passed to prevent underrepresentation of racial minorities, has scarcely resolved the underrepresentation of women of color, though it has been successful in helping to elect men of colo r. In fact, three scholars, R. Darcy, Charles Hadley and Jason Kirksey, have demonstrated that the underrepresentation of blacks is largely an underrepresentation of black women. The story is likely the same for Latina women. In the U.S. House of Repres entatives, while Latino men lack about a fifth of the representation one would expect, given their share of the population, Latina women are underrepresented by 99 percent. African American women have only about one fourth the representation of black men . Contrary to popular perception, African American men are overrepresented in the U.S. House of Representatives, as are white men -- by 22% and 111% respectively, in terms of their share of the U.S. population.

The story is similar in state and local legislatures. In the fifty state senates -- prestigious legislative seats which are stepping stones to Congress -- Latino men outnumber Latina women by over 5 to 1; African American men outnumber African American w omen by 4.5 to 1; and white men outnumber white women by 5 to 1, for a total average ratio of 4.8 men to every women.

Electing more women to legislatures is not only a matter of fairness, wider representation and affirmative action. Practically speaking, the presence of women in legislatures makes a qualitative and quantitative difference in the types of legislation tha t are proposed and passed into law. In a study comparing legislation in major democracies, Dr. Arend Lijphart, professor of political science and president of the American Political Science Association, found that countries with proportional representati on -- which generally elect a much higher percentage of women than the U.S. -- have enacted more laws that benefit women and children. In the U.S., although outnumbered 9-1, Congresswomen have been successful in gaining legislation long overlooked by the ir male colleagues, including gender equity in education, child support legislation, and laws for prevention of violence against women. It was Congresswomen who ensured that the offensive behavior of U.S. Senators Bob Packwood (Republican, Oregon) and Br ock Adams (Democrat, Washington), as well as U.S. Supreme Court candidate Clarence Thomas, were not swept under the "good ol' boy" carpet.

There is something tangible and significant at stake in the gross underrepresentation of women. The common wisdom is that, regrettably, persistent cultural sexism causes this underrepresentation. While discriminatory attitudes certainly play a large ro le, their existence can not explain why different electoral systems used in the same national cultures produce significantly different results in the election of women. Research shows that the number one predictor of women's success in national legislati ve elections, when tested with other political and socio-economic variables, is the presence of proportional representation (PR) voting systems. In Australia, proportional representation multi-seat districts and U.S.-style single seat "winner take all" di stricts are used for electing different legislative bodies. In Germany's hybrid "mixed member" voting system, proportional multi-seat districts and "winner take all" single seat districts are used for electing representatives to the same legislative body . The results in the proportional balloting compared to winner take all is revealing: three times more women legislators were elected in Australia and Germany by PR in the 1987-1993 elections. Furthermore, countries that use PR exclusively elect many t imes more women to their legislatures compared to countries that use winner take all exclusively, with countries like Sweden (41%), Finland (39%), Norway (36%), Denamrk (33%), The Netherlands (29%) and South Africa (25%) leading the way.

Scholars documented in the 1980s that more American women were elected to state legislatures in those states which used multi-seat (also known as "at-large") districts, or a mixed system of multi-seat and single seat districts. In the early 1990s it was further documented that African American women were more likely to be elected in multi-seat districts than in single seat ones, as were white women. In the 1960s to 1980s, most states that switched to single seat districts from multi-seat ones experience d a decline in women legislators relative to the national average. Although local level research is sparse, this generalization seems to apply there as well.

What this adds up to is compelling evidence that single seat "winner take all" legislative districts discriminate against women. When a majority of votes is needed, even a small number of discriminatory voters can deny women candidates the margin they ne ed for election to a single seat. What's more, single seat "winner take all" districts have been the primary Voting Rights remedy used to correct for racial minority vote dilution, by drawing the districts in such a way as to optimize the vote of racial constituencies. No wonder then, that women of color are underrepresented compared to their male counterparts. Voting Rights remedies unintentionally favor the representation of men of color over that of minority and nonminority women.

The U.N. Beijing conference on women approved a platform plank urging all governments to "review the differential impact of electoral systems on the political representation of women in elected bodies and consider, where appropriate, the adjustment or ref orm of those systems." Knowing what we know today, a Senate Judiciary Committee considering the stark underrepresentation of women in the United States would have no choice but to find "winner take all" single seat districts as discriminatory against wo men. To implement the U.N. directive, election procedures would be needed which allow equal opportunity for women voters and candidates, as well as male minority voters and candidates. Surveying around the country and the world, it is rather obvious that there would be little choice but to recommend multi-seat districts and proportional voting methods for electing our representatives, such as the list system, preference voting (also known as the single transferable vote), and cumulative voting.

The latter, cumulative voting, which has been pushed to the public spotlight by its foremost proponent, law professor Lani Guinier, has been used successfully in the United States as a remedy in various local voting rights cases. It has resulted in women of all colors as well as men of color being elected.

The list system of proportional representation -- which is the most widely used voting system in democracies -- gives women and ethnic minorities fair representation in national legislatures. Representatives are elected from multi-seat districts in propor tion to the number of votes each party or slate receives. If there are ten legislative seats and a party or slate receives 30% of the popular vote, they receive thirty percent -- three -- of the seats. Political parties and organizations have an incenti ve to place women and ethnic minorities on their respective lists to broaden their appeal. Research shows that women gain greater representation when the party list is open, allowing voters to select particular candidates rather than the entire list. So uth Africa chose the multi-seat list system rather than winner take all single seat districts as the foundation of its multiracial democracy, because of its unique capacity to allow minority representation and majority rule.

Preference voting allows voters to rank candidates in their order of preference, 1,2,3,4, etc. It includes what is called a transferable ballot, so that if a voter's first choice doesn't win, their vote transfers to their second choice, third choice, and so on. This keeps constituencies from splitting their vote among several competing candidates, or having to settle for the "lesser of two evils." Preference voting also reduces the number of votes needed to win a seat compared to winner take all. This lower threshold opens up the races to women candidates and candidates representing racial or political minorities. Preference voting can be partisan or non-partisan, and is used in Ireland and Australia, in Cambridge, MA to elect the city council and s chool boards, and in New York City to elect community school boards. It has proven itself up to the challenge of electing women and ethnic minorities in fair and competitive elections without having to gerrymander district lines.

Implementation of any of these alternative voting systems at local, state and Congressional levels does not require any revisions to the U.S. Constitution. Changes in applicable local, state and -- for the U.S. House -- one federal law will do. Congressw oman Cynthia McKinney (Democrat, Georgia) has introduced a bill HR 2545 that will modify the 1967 federal law mandating single seat districts for the U.S. House so that states can elect their House delegations from multi-seat districts via proportional re presentation. Present at the press conference announcing this bill was executive director Jody Newman of the National Women's Political Caucus. The NWPC stated its support for the legislation, stating "research has suggested that systems of proportional representation result in greater numbers of elected women, and that greater numbers of women are elected in multi-member than single-member districts." If passed, Rep. McKinney's bill will allow states to give representation to racial minorities without having to resort to the pitfalls of race-conscious districting, which was declared unconstitutional by a recent Supreme Court ruling. At the same time, the bill will permit women to have electoral opportunities unknown to them under winner take all elec tions.

It is easy to envision that, without fundamental change to the winner take all voting system, seventy five years hence women in the United States will still languish on the political margins. It is time to fulfill the promise of both the 19th and the 14th Amendments, giving women equal rights for voting and election. The only way to do this, and be fair to majority and minority constituencies of all races, genders and political association, the evidence strongly suggests, is to abandon our archaic winner take all voting system, and convert to some variant of a proportional representation voting system.

Dr. Wilma Rule is adjunct professor at University of Nevada-Reno and co-editor with Dr. Joseph F. Zimmerman of United States Electoral Systems: Their Impact on Women and Minorities (Greenwood Press, 1992) and Electoral Systems in Comparative Perspective: Their Impact on Women and Minorities (Greenwood Press, 1994). Steven Hill is a journalist and the west coast coordinator of the Center for Voting and Democracy.

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