Women's Representation

Women's Representation and Electoral Systems

Women are over 50% of the population of the United States but make up only about 20% of Congress. Only one state, New Hampshire, has reached gender parity in elected office, and no states have reached parity in both chambers of their state legislature. Women have served in the U.S. Senate in 27 only states. These statistics reflect the fact that women have a diluted presence in government. 

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Based on the percentage of women in the House of Representatives (19.3%), the Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks the United States 94th out of 188 countries in the world for representation of women (as of November 2015). Countries ahead of the United States include Rwanda, Cuba, South Africa, Vietnam, Pakistan, China and Bosnia. 

 

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Many women in government, advocacy groups, and scholars observe that the number of women in office needs to increase. While many look at social reforms to address gender disparity, FairVote's work examines the structural barriers to representation, specifically single-winner electoral systems. 

The Problem of Single-Winner Districts

Studies by Douglas Amy (2002), Jennifer Hayes Clark and Veronica Caro (2013), James King (2002), Richard Matland and Deborah Brown (1992), Michael Minta (2012), Heather Ondercin and Susan Welch (2009), Lilliard Richardson, Brain Russell, et al (2004), and Jessica Troustine (2008), to name a few, find that winner-take-all elections in single-winner districts are a barrier to women in office.  

Numerous comparative studies, by American and international scholars, conclude that women are best represented in proportional systems with multi-winner districts (Welch (1990), Studlar and Welch (1996), Welch, Clark, and Darcy (1985), Zimmerman (1994), Kaminsky and White (2007)).

These findings hold even when we take into account the cultural expectations about the role of women. So while ingrained social attitudes might be a significant barrier to gender parity, our current electoral system also plays a large role. The bottom line is that use of single-winner districts and winner-take-all have allowed little opportunity for women to do more than squeeze in at the edges. 

The Advantage of Multi-Winner Districts

In their studies of U.S. jurisdictions, Matland and Brown (1992) and Hughes (2013) find multi-winner districts create better opportunity for women’s representation over single-member districts.

Numerous studies reach similar conclusions. For example: 

Multi-winner districts increase women's representation for two key reasons: voters tend to balance their tickets; and political parties seek to appeal to as many voters as they can. Amy (2002), Zimmerman (1994), and Troustine (2008) find that in the multi-winner environment voters are more likely to vote for male and female candidates to balance their choices. Therefore, in multi-winner systems parties have greater incentives to run more female candidates. As much of the scholarship finds, parties run more female candidates in multi-winner systems because parties diversify their candidates to appeal to more voters (Barkman, 1995). This leads to more recruitment of female candidates and, consequently, more women in elective office. 

The Promise of Ranked Choice Voting in Multi-Winner Seats

Moving from single-winner, winner-take-all districts to multi-member proportional representation models has the best chance of increasing women’s representation (King, 2002).  Of all the systems, party-list types of proportional representation, common in Europe, tend to be the best for women's representation.

While the U.S. is unlikely to adopt European model of proportional representation, it has a long history of using candidate-centered forms of proportional representation like cumulative voting districts or ranked choice voting in multi-winner districts. In particular, ranked choice voting in multi-winner districts should increase the number of women elected. The international use of multi-winner RCV provides clues as to its likely impact in the United States. The Australian Senate, which is elected using multi-winner RCV, has relatively high proportions of women members as does Malta's legislature (also elected using multi-winner RCV). In Ireland, however, the Dail Eireann, elected using multi-winner RCV, has below average proportions of women. But many scholars posit that Ireland's lack of parity has more to do with its conservative political culture and recruitment of women in local governments than electoral mechanisms (Bowler, S. and B. Grofman (2000), Buckley, Fiona, Mack Mariana, et al (2015), McElroy, Gail and Michael Marsh (2010)). 

In the United States, multi-winner RCV is only used in Cambridge, Massachusetts. FairVote is currently working to further examine the effect of ranked choice voting, in both its multi- and single-winner forms, on representation.

Further Reading 

Based on the percentage of women in the House of Representatives (19.3%), the Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks the United States 94th out of 188 countries in the world for representation of women (as of November 2015). Countries ahead of the United States include Rwanda, Cuba, South Africa, Vietnam, Pakistan, China and Bosnia. 

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