By Cynthia Richie Terrell
Sojourner Truth didn’t deliver her iconic “Ain’t I a Woman?” address for the sake of an inspirational Instagram post. Susan B. Anthony didn’t champion women’s voting rights for a special museum exhibit. A women-themed happy hour was hardly the motivation for Sacagawea’s dangerous trek across the country with Lewis and Clark.
Yet we continue to celebrate Women's History Month with hashtags and Ruth Bader Ginsburg swag.
Sure, panel discussions and Facebook posts elevate the critical role women have played in shaping our history. But to limit our recognition to such celebrations does a disservice to the legend and legacy of our great women leaders. Rather than simply honor them as champions of change, we should continue their advocacy and work for a more fair and inclusive democracy.
Because it’s not like the path for progress ended with suffrage.
While women have won not only the right to vote but also to compete as candidates for office, structural barriers still inhibit their ability to win. Even the current Congress, lauded for its diversity, still falls considerably short of reflective representation. Women comprise just 25 percent of the U.S. Senate and 23.4 percent of the U.S. House, versus more than half of our country’s population.
America touts its democracy as a beacon to the world. But when it comes to women’s representation in government, we’re hardly No. 1. In fact, 77 countries have higher percentages of women in their elected legislatures.
Rwanda leads the pack with women in 61 percent of seats in its Chamber of Deputies — the equivalent of the U.S. House. Bolivian women make up 53 percent of its lower house, while Australia’s Senate-equivalent includes 41 percent women legislators.
Though quite literally a world apart, these countries share a voting method proven to help increase representation for women at the ballot box and in the halls of power: multi-winner ranked choice voting (RCV).
Referred to in other countries as “proportional representation” or “single transferable vote,” multi-winner ranked choice voting is an easy, effective way to level the playing field for candidates — such as women — inherently disenfranchised by a single-choice, winner-take-all plurality system.
Instead of limiting voters to a single choice, RCV gives them the freedom to rank their preferences in order of choice. Count the first choices; if a candidate receives enough votes — a percentage determined by the number of available seats — he or she wins, as with any election.
If a candidate receives more than the requisite amount of votes, and there are still open seats, those surplus votes count proportionally toward voters’ next choices.
For any (or all) remaining seats, the ranked choice count kicks in. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and voters who picked that candidate as “number 1” have their votes count for their next choice. This process continues until enough candidates meet the requisite vote threshold fill the open seats.
Adaptable to Congress by redrawing districts to elect multiple House members with ranked choice voting in each — as introduced by U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) in the Fair Representation Act — multi-winner, ranked choice voting guarantees that voters in both the majority and the minority can help elect the candidates they feel best represent them. And without fear of vote-splitting or “spoilers,” candidates traditionally at a disadvantage in a single-choice system can legitimately compete, even band together to boost their chances.
The resulting group of elected leaders reflects their voters in everything from race and religion to age, socioeconomic status and, of course, gender. Just ask the women of Rwanda or Bolivia or, closer to home, Cambridge, Mass., which has used multi-winner ranked choice voting to elect its city council and school board members since 1941.
We owe it to Sojourner and Susan and Sacagawea, and all the fearless women revolutionaries who came before us, to celebrate women not only in panel discussions and museum exhibits but with the institutional reforms that create fair and equal representation.
Cynthia Richie Terrell is founder and executive director of RepresentWomen, a nonpartisan organization that works to change rules and systems to advance women’s representation and leadership in appointed and elected office.