The proportional form of ranked choice voting (RCV) is a rising star among local municipalities in the U.S. It’s a proportional representation system that allows voters to rank-elect multiple representatives in their district at once, rather than a single representative who wins the most votes. Districts that elect multiple representatives are known as multi-member districts. Cities as diverse as Cambridge, MA and Eastpointe, MI currently use this form of proportional representation in local elections, while voters in Albany, CA approved its implementation for city council and school board elections this month.
Many prospective voters, especially women, may wonder how a transition from a single-member district to a multi-member district (MMD) could impact the quality of their representation.
Despite accounting for over half of the country’s population, women are woefully underrepresented in all levels of the U.S. government, where white, male incumbents historically dominate. In Congress, for example, RepresentWomen shows that female legislators hold a marginal 23.7% of the 535 total seats. Given these gendered disparities in political participation, it is worth examining whether multi-member districts with proportional voting can truly facilitate stronger women’s representation, or if they will simply repackage the status quo in new processes.
Fortunately, political science research and new work by RepresentWomen shows that women are unequivocally more likely to be elected in multi-member districts, both with proportional methods and non-proportional methods. Since the 1980s, a number of landmark studies have demonstrated a consistent, positive association between district magnitude - the number of representatives per district - and women’s representation. This means that women have a higher chance of winning in districts where more people get elected in general.
This pattern holds true in RCV systems as well. Australia uses a form of proportional representation known as “Single Transferable Vote (STV)” - which is the same form of proportional ranked choice voting used in Cambridge and Eastpointe - to elect its federal senate. Australia has single-member districts for their House elections and multi-member districts for their Senate. In Australia between 1943 and 2004, researchers discovered that 2.5 times more women were elected to the multi-member Senate than the single-member House. Even when factors like political culture and electoral system are held constant, the magnitude and proportionality of a district still impact women’s electoral success.
Though there is nearly universal consensus that women do better in multi-member districts, the most important question is: why? Political scientists believe multi-member districts (MMDs) reduce barriers for women that are perpetuated by single-member systems. For example, MMDs have lower incumbency rates and lower thresholds to win, both of which make it easier for women to beat out male incumbents and win a seat. Multi-member districts also give political parties incentive to promote women in their ranks. In single-member races, parties are more likely to prioritize and support the election of an incumbent or “sure bet” candidate - a candidate that is statistically more likely to be male. But with multiple seats on the line in an MMD, parties actively seek out female candidates to appeal to broader portions of the electorate and win more seats.
Multi-member districts thus create positive-sum conditions for women in office, improving the quality of women’s representation and paving the way for gender parity. Albany, Cambridge, and other cities using multi-member districts with proportional representation have the power to fundamentally change the gender dynamics of American politics from the local level.