Our research finds that election rules and systems impact women's representation in government. In the U.S. and other countries, women have fared best when there is proportional representation (PR). For more information about the rules and systems used around the world, please turn to our international research.
In the United States, multi-winner ranked choice voting is the best way to achieve proportional representation. In the sections below, we'll cover the importance of district design for women's representation, but please note that RepresentWomen only advocates for multi-winner districts (MMDs) in ranked choice elections. To learn more about ranked choice voting, please turn to our latest research on voting reforms.
Although multi-winner districts were once used to elect Congressional delegates to the U.S. House Representatives, today, our best examples come from state legislative chambers, cities, and counties. In the graph below, you'll find the percent of women elected to state legislatures that use multi-member districts.
*Please note that not all multi-member districts are created the same. And that women will tend to be better-represented in districts that elect three to five representatives than in two-member districts.
In the United States, state legislatures have the authority to partition their states into smaller subdivisions - or voting districts - from which representatives may be elected. In some districts, voters are represented by a single representative. In others, two or more people may be elected to represent a single constituency.
There are three types of voting districts in the United States:
The number of representatives elected from a single district to the same legislative body is a matter of district design (or district magnitude). Our research shows that electoral outcomes for women can vary significantly depending on the number of representatives elected.
Consider the following graph:
Maryland, New Hampshire, and West Virginia each use a combination of multi-winner and single-winner districts in their state legislatures. All else equal, women are consistently better-represented in multi-winner districts over single-winner districts.
Now consider the next graph:
Women's representation in state legislatures has grown steadily since 1976. Seven of the ten state legislatures that use multi-member districts have more women legislators than the national average (29%). The overall average of women's representation in state legislatures using MMDs (33%) is also higher than it is in those using SMDs.
Here is a case-example that demonstrates the importance of district design for women's representation. In the 1980s, Wyoming was one of the highest-ranking states for women's representation in state legislatures, with their representation reaching a peak of 34% in 1986. In 1992, the state ended its use of MMDs and began electing its representatives in SMDs instead. In 2020, women make up just 16% of the state legislature.
Political science research suggests that multi-member districts improve women’s representation for a variety of reasons, including:
In our annual Gender Parity Index, we credit states with achieving progress towards gender parity while noting how incremental and uneven progress has been. In the absence of systems-based approaches, progress towards parity will continue to lag behind its full potential - even as more women begin to run for office.
To achieve gender parity in our lifetimes, we need to support systems-based approaches to leveling the playing field and adopt multi-winner ranked choice voting on a national scale. With our partners at FairVote, we have conducted research on what this could look like in the U.S. House.
See the following map: