Voices & Choices

Celebrate International Women’s Day with electoral reform

Celebrate International Women’s Day with electoral reform

It’s hard to celebrate International Women’s Day when, at least in the U.S., women remain dramatically underrepresented at all levels of government.

While women comprise more than half our country’s population, their representation in elected office is far less: 23 percent of U.S. House seats, 25 percent of U.S. Senate seats, 29 percent of state legislative offices, and 20 percent of city and county offices.  

Adding insult to injury, the U.S. ranks 77th in women’s representation, according to RepresentWomen’s dashboard and new report. Though relatively few countries have achieved gender parity - meaning representation among women in government reflects the general population - many, seemingly ‘less democratic ‘ countries are closer to such a standard than the United States. Consider, for example, that women hold 53 percent of federal legislative offices in Cuba, 53 percent in Bolivia and 48 percent in Mexico - all more than double women’s representation in U.S. Congress.

So what gives? Are Cuban or Bolivian women simply better at winning elected office than their American counterparts?

A more likely culprit, as proven through extensive research, are the institutional barriers that make it harder for women to run, win and lead. These include recruitment practices that perpetuate status quo candidates, voting systems that protect incumbents and limit competition, and legislative norms that make it difficult for women to serve and lead effectively once elected.

While dismantling these barriers remains a struggle even in the countries and cities that have achieved gender parity, research suggests a strong correlation between voting systems and women’s representation. Forms of proportional representation, including ranked choice voting, have led to significant gains for women both on the ballot and in the halls of power in the places where it’s used both domestically and abroad.

Ranked choice voting allows for multiple candidates to compete without splitting votes, creating a level playing field for candidates historically disadvantaged by our single-choice, “winner-take-all-system” - including women. It also encourages civility and incentivizes issue-based campaigns.

Already, cities across the country like San Francisco, Santa Fe, Minneapolis, and the state of Maine have adopted ranked ballots to allow voters to fully express their true preferences. Many of the cities where RCV is used have also seen increases in women candidates and elected leaders since switching to this more fair and representative voting method.

Women candidates were 26 percent more likely to win office in cities that used RCV than those without, and 6 percent more likely to run for office in the first place, according to a 2016 FairVote study.

Women hold mayoral posts in 36 percent of cities with ranked choice voting, versus the average of 23 percent in the 100 most populous cities in the U.S., according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Cities that use ranked ballots also include about 49 percent women on their city councils, versus an average of 25 percent in the 100 most populous cities in the U.S, according to data collected by RepresentWomen.

Particularly in its multi-winner form, ranked choice voting help create governing bodies who reflect the people they intend to serve. Legislation proposed by U.S. Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia would implement such reflective representation for Congress, combining larger, multi-member districts with ranked choice voting to create a “People’s House” that looks more like the people of this country, including  gender parity.

A dedicated holiday celebrating women is certainly a worthy event. But more than a Twitter hashtag or women-themed event, we should celebrate women by enacting the systems and reforms that allow them to succeed, including ranked choice voting.

Illustration by Mikhaila Markham

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