Legislatures should reflect the diversity of the constituents they represent. In the United States, women and many racial minority groups lack fair representation at all levels of government. Similarly, independent and third party voters are often left without representation. While deep-rooted social factors have long stood in the way of reflective representation, our electoral structures also play a significant part in determining who is elected to office. 

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Women's Representation in the U.S.

Women are over 50% of the population of the United States but make up only about one quarter of Congress. Only one state, New Hampshire, has reached gender parity in elected office. 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. 

See the Gender Parity Index from RepresentWomen to check how your state measures up. 

Gender Parity Index


Based on the percentage of women in the House of Representatives, the U.S. is ranked 67th in the world for women's representation. 

How the U.S. Ranks Internationally


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. 


Single-Winner Districts Contribute to a Lack of Representation

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.  

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: 

  • In their seminal analysis of the issue Clark et al (1985) found that in the 14 states that used both multi-winner districts and single-winner districts to elect their state legislatures, a greater proportion of candidates in multi-winner districts were women. Furthermore, changing to single-winner districts from multi-winner was associated with in a noticeable decrease in women’s representation (947). James King (2002) found similar results.
  • King (2002) found that states that switched from multi-winner districts to single-winner districts experienced a decrease of women's representation of between 1 and 6 percentage points per election cycle. This decrease, King argues, has implications for women's representation in higher office because state legislatures tend to act as spring boards for state executive positions (like governor or treasurer) or federal level office.
  • Clark and Caro (2013) found that use of multi-winner districts in state legislatures affected the legislative process. Comparing Arizona’s state house, which is elected from multi-winner districts (using block voting), to its state senate, elected in single-winner districts, the authors found that there was more cross-partisan collaboration on “women’s issues” in the House than the Senate. Additionally, bills emerging from the state house were more likely to be cosponsored.

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. 

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. 

How women succeed in multi-winner districts in the U.S.


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 used in five cities, and under consideration in many more. 


Further Reading 

  • Barkman, Kerstin. 1995. “Politics and Gender: The Need for Electoral Reform”. Politics 15(3). 141-146. 
  • Carroll, Susan J. and Kira Sanbonmatsu. 2013. “Rethinking Candidate Emergence” from More Women Can Run: Gender and Pathways to the State Legislature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. P. 2-17
  • Buckley, Fiona, Mack Mariana, Claire McGing, and Timothy White. 2015. “Is Local Office A Springboard for Women to Dail Eireann?”. Journal of Women, Politics, and Policy 36. 311-335.
  • Clark, Jennifer Hayes and Veronica Caro. 2013. “Multimember Districts and the Substantive Representation of Women: An Analysis of Legislative Cosponsorship Networks”.Politics and Gender 1(30). 1-26.
  • Crowder-Meyer, Melody. 2013. “Gendered Recruitment without Trying: How Local Party Recruiters Affect Women’s Representation”. Politics and Gender 9(4). 390-413.
  • Crowder-Meyer, Melody, Shana Kushner Gadarian, and Jessica Trounstine. 2015. “Dialogue: Local Elections in American Politics: Electoral Institutions, Gender Stereotypes, and women’s local representation.” Politics, Groups, and Institutions 3(2). 318-334.
  • Hughes, Melanie M. 2011. “Intersectionality, Quotas, and Minority Women’s Political Representation Worldwide. The American Political Science Review 105 (3). 604-620.
  • King, James. 2002. Single Member Districts and the Representation of Women in American State Legislatures: The Effects of Electoral Systems Change. State Politics and Policy Quarterly. 161-175. 
  • Ondercin, Heather L. and Susan Welch. 2009. “Comparing Predictors of Women’s Congressional Election Success Candidates, Primaries, and General Elections. American Politics Research 37(4).
  • Rule, Wilma. 1987. “Electoral Systems, Contextual Factors, and Women’s Opportunity for Election to Parliament in Twenty-three Democracies”. Western Political Quarterly. 40(3). 477-498.
  • Smith, Adrienne R., Beth Reingold, and Michael Leo Owens. 2012. “The Political Determinants of Women’s Descriptive Representation in Cities. Political Research Quarterly 65(2). 315-329.
  • Welch, Susan. 1990. The Impact of At-Large Elections on the Representation of Blacks and Hispanics. The Journal of Politics 52(4).
  • Welch, Susan and Donley T. Studlar. 1990. “Multimember Districts and the Representation of Women: Evidence from Britain and the United States”. The Journal of Politics 52(2). 391-412.
  •  Welch, Susan, Janet Clark and Robert Darcy. 1985. “Women Candidates in Single and Multi-member Districts: American State Legislative Races”. Social Science Quarterly. 945-953.
  • Zimmerman, Joseph F. 1994. Alternative Voting Systems for Representative Democracy. PS: Political Science and Politics 27(4). 674-677. 


Racial Minority Representation and Electoral Systems

LBJ Signing the Voting Rights Act

Many racial minority groups are severely underrepresented in local, state, and federal government. All discussions of improving descriptive racial minority representation in the United States are guided by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and a later 1967 law that legally embeds the notion that single-winner districts are better for minority representation than multi-winner districts, especially block voting (Carroll and Sanbonmatsu, 2013).

Contemporary scholarship supports the idea that minorities are most fairly represented in well-drawn single-winner districts only when the minority population in question is politically homogeneous and geographically concentrated. In recognition of these problems, inherent in single-winner districts, judges increasingly uphold multi-winner proportional electoral systems, like Cumulative Voting and Limited Voting, as legitimate alternatives to majority-minority single-member districts under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

The literature shows:

  • The observed increase in descriptive representation of minorities under single-winner districts has not translated into proportional increases of substantive representation, as the voices of minority policymakers are drowned out by non-minority policymakers (See Rocah, et al, 2010).  Both Richard Engstrom (2011) and Elisabeth Gerber et al (1998) observe that courts increasingly rule that racially gerrymandered districts dilute votes or reduce overall minority influence by limiting minority representation to a few majority-minority districts. These districts make up a small proportion of districts, meaning that the voices of minority legislators, and the constituents they represent, can be drowned out in the aggregate.
  • In single-winner districts, Hispanic populations are disadvantaged because they tend to be more evenly distributed and spread-out. Single-winner districts are notoriously bad for minority groups that are evenly dispersed across an area (See: Welch (1990) and Casellas (2009)).
  • When more than one minority population lives in a district, plurality ensures that vote splitting can ensure that neither minority group is represented. For example, in a district with sizable Black and Latino populations with a candidate from each group running, vote splitting can ensure that neither candidate wins (See: Paru Shah, 2009). 
  • Proportional representation in multi-winner districts is a valid means by which to increase fair representation of racial minority groups  (Amy, 2002, 138). 
  • As Douglas Amy (2002) notes, one of the biggest advantages to multi-winner proportional systems such as cumulative voting, is a change to the power structure. In a proportional system, power is shared between representatives representing different groups, rather than held by just the largest group. Thus, an election does not need to lead to one group winning all the representation in a district with all others feeling  that they lack representation.
  • Similarly, Shaun Bowler et al (2003) observe that multi-winner proportional systems allow various groups to share power instead of creating the dynamic of power-winner versus power-loser that is so common in plurality systems.  The authors argue that, when power is shared, minorities and non-minorities are responsible for the same district, which may foster cross-cultural communities instead of perpetuating a system of separate communities.  
  • As long as minority voters continue to vote in a racially polarized manner (for an in-group descriptive candidate), then both women and minorities should both benefit from cumulative voting and other proportional systems (Zimmerman,1994, 674). David Brockington et al (1998) come to a similar conclusion, noting that proportional systems have potential to increase minority representation if minority voters turnout at rates comparable to majority voters. 

RCV and the representation of racial minority groups


Because multi-winner RCV is not yet widely used in the United States, and single-winner RCV has gained popularity recently, we do not yet know much about the impact of RCV on minority representation.

There is good reason to expect that multi-winner RCV will fairly represent ethnic and racial minorities, for the same reasons other proportional systems do (Amy, 2002).

Early, anecdotal, evidence shows that RCV in single-winner districts has been accompanied by high levels of representation for ethnic and racial minorities.  Currently (2015), three of the four mayors of the Bay Area cities using ranked choice voting in their elections are female. Women hold half or more of the offices elected by RCV in the Bay Area in three cities: Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro. Women and people of color hold 47 of the 52 elected offices filled using RCV. 

To explore the link between RCV and the representation of ethnic and racial minorities FairVote has launched two ambitious projects: 

  • RCV and the Representation of Women and People of Color in the Bay Area: In this project, FairVote is quantifying the impact of RCV on the representation of women and people of color in the Bay Area. We use an extensive database of candidates dating back to 1992 and a rigorous difference in differences method. We anticipate our project to be complete by June 2016.
  • Electoral Systems and Customs and the Representation of Women and People of Color at the County Level: The Who Leads Us databases, created with the assistance of the Women Donors Network, record the gender, race and ethnicity of candidates and elected officials from the local county to national level of public office in 2014. Utilizing these extensive databases, FairVote is exploring the impact of different electoral systems and customs on descriptive representation. For example, we will explore the relevance of term limits to the representation of women and people of color. By the end of 2016, we will publish an interactive tool ranking each county as well as publish a report highlighting what structural reforms are associated with more equitable representation of women and people of color. 

We anticipate completion of these projects in 2016. 

Further Reading 

  • Bowler, S., Donovan, T., & Brockington, D. (2003). Electoral reform and minority representation: Local experiments with alternative elections. Ohio State University Press.
  • Bowler, S and B. Grofman. 2000. Elections in Australia, Ireland, and Malta Under STV: Reflections on an Embedded Institution. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Introduction 1-14
  • Carroll, Susan J. and Kira Sanbonmatsu. 2013. “Rethinking Candidate Emergence” from More Women Can Run: Gender and Pathways to the State Legislature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. P. 2-17.
  • Cooper, Duane A. 2007. The Potential of Cumulative Voting to Yield Fair Representation. Journal of Theoretical Politics 19(3). 277-295.
  • Cooper, Duane and Arthur Zillante. 2012. A Comparison of Cumulative Voting and Generalized Plurality Voting. Public Choice 150(1) 363-383.
  • Hero, R. and C. Tolbert. 2005. Exploring Minority Political Efficacy: Considering the Impact of Social and Institutional Context. In G. M. Segura and Shaun Bowler (eds) Diversity In Democracy: Minority Representation in the United States. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
  • Lien, Pei-te. 2015. Reassessing Descriptive Representation by Women and Men of Color: New Evidence at the Subnational Level. Urban Affairs Review 51(2). 239-262.  
  • Shah, Paru. 2009. “Racing Toward Representation: A Hurdle Model of Latino Incorporation”. American Politics Research 28(1).  84-109.
  • Shah, Paru, 2014. “It Takes a Black Candidate: A Supply-Side Theory of Minority Representation. Political Research Quarterly 67(2). 266-279.
  • Welch, Susan. 1990. The Impact of At-Large Elections on the Representation of Blacks and Hispanics. The Journal of Politics 52(4).
  • Zimmerman, Joseph F. 1994. Alternative Voting Systems for Representative Democracy. PS: Political Science and Politics 27(4).

Representation of Third-Party and Independent Voters

The effects of alternative electoral systems such as Ranked Choice Voting on third-party and independent representation in the United States is a major topic of FairVote's research. Although there are examples from abroad (for instance, the multi-winner use of RCV in the Australian Senate is thought to slightly increase the representation of minor parties (Bowler and Grofman, 2000), the unique two-party, candidate-centered system of the US makes extrapolating the overseas experience difficult. 

Voting AustraliaWhile RCV might not increase the election of third party or independent candidates in the US, as candidates must clear a threshold of the total vote (a threshold that decreases the more candidates that are being elected), RCV allows supporters of third parties and minor candidates to sincerely rank their preferred candidate first without feeling like their votes are wasted (Lewyn, Michael (2012)). RCV also minimizes the spoiler effect of third party votes. Under RCV, third party and independent supporters can rank their most preferred party or candidate first. If their candidate is eliminated, their votes immediately transfer to their second choice preference. Third parties supporters are thus free to elect their favorite candidate with minimal chance that that support will spoil the election outcome (Bartholdi III and Orlin,1991, Bowler and Grofman, 2000).  

Along with preventing spoilers, RCV may also help keep the major parties more accountable to the electorate. Candidates are incentivized to court a broader range of voters than they normally would, including asking for second and third choice rankings from minor-party supporters. 

In multi-winner RCV, it also becomes possible for Democrats or Republicans that live in a district with the opposite majority to gain representation. As long as the Democrat or Republican population is equal to or greater than the threshold to win, people can gain representation where they currently feel left out.  

Further Reading

  • Bartholdi III, J. J., & Orlin, J. B. (1991). Single transferable vote resists strategic voting. Social Choice and Welfare, 8(4), 341-354.
  • Bowler, S and B. Grofman. 2000. Elections in Australia, Ireland, and Malta Under STV: Reflections on an Embedded Institution. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Introduction 1-14
  • Kaminsky, Jackie and Timothy J. White. 2007. “Electoral Systems and Women’s Representation in  Australia.” Commonwealth and Comparative Politics 45(2)

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