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Election of Women in our 100 Largest Cities: Disadvantaged by Districts

Our nation’s 100 largest cities have a combined population of more than 61 million, which represents nearly a fifth of all Americans. Representation 2020’s research into representation of women in these city elections has striking implications for the impact of electoral structure on the likelihood of women running and winning. Here are our initial findings.



Women are mayors in only 12 of these 100 large cities, but hold 336 (31.5%) of their 1,068 city council seats. A particularly clear trend is how much better women did when running at-large as compared to running in single-member district wards. Women won 39.2% of 209 at-large seats in these cities, as compared to winning 29.6% of seats in single-member districts. This trend echoes consistent findings over time that women win a higher percentage of multi-seat district seat elections than single-member district elections for state legislature.



The contrast is most revealing when comparing cities where women hold the most city council seats with cities where women do most poorly in council seats. Women hold a majority of council seats in nine cities. All but one of these cities has at least some at-large seats, and 36% of their seats overall are elected at-large. Women hold nearly three-quarters (72%) of these cities’ at-large seats, as opposed to just over half (53%) of these cities’ district seats. In contrast, women hold a grand total of just three seats in the eight worst cities for women representation - including Buffalo, Los Angeles, Miami, and Milwaukee - and fully 73 of these cities’ 76 council seats are elected in single member districts.



Women hold more than 30% of the at-large seats in the 47 cities that elect at least some seats at-large and hold fewer than 20% of at-large seats in just five of those 47 cities. Women are shut out entirely in only three cities. Women have more than half of these at-large seats in 12 cities and at least half in another six. In contrast, of the 86 cities with district seats, women hold more than half of the district seats in just five cities and half the seats in another six. Overall, women have parity in representation, meaning that they hold at least half of the elected positions, in 38% of at-large seats of the 47 cities that have them, but have parity in representation in only 13% of the district seats in the 86 cities with at least some district seats - a disparity of three to one.

There also is a striking difference in measuring how many residents have at least one female representative. In no city with only district elections does every resident have a female representative on council. But in 44 of the 47 cities with at-large seats, every resident has at least one woman representative. We will be studying whether this increases the chances of women winning citywide for mayor.




 These findings of course do not mean that the mere presence of at-large seats results in election of women or that women always do badly in district elections. But the trends are clear, and it is time for us to take this consideration seriously when debating city election reform. There has been a general move away from at-large elections in recent decades without the potential adverse impact on representation of women being even a slight factor. We believe that recognition of women’s greater success in multi-seat elections will draw more attention to the option of reforming winner-take-all at-large elections with fair representation voting systems – ones that can correct the downsides of at-large elections without losing their positive attributes that include creating more opportunities for women.

Relating to choice of electoral systems, four of these 100 cities elect their mayor and councils with ranked choice voting (RCV) in one election without a primary or runoff: Minneapolis (MN), Oakland (CA), San Francisco (CA), and St. Paul (MN). Ranked choice voting creates more incentives for candidates to run positive campaigns, rewards grassroots politics and reduces the impact of money in the campaign process by shortening the campaign season and mitigating the impact of negative campaign ads.

Minneapolis and Oakland have now held open seat mayoral elections with ranked choice voting, and in both cases female candidates won despite being heavily outspent by well-connected male candidates. Women also hold five of eight city council seats in Oakland, which puts the city second in the nation in women’s representation on city councils in the 100 biggest cities, and Minneapolis also ranks highly at 16th. San Francisco ranks 38th for women’s representation while also having people of color hold nine of 11 seats, nearly double their share before RCV was implemented. This November St. Paul will elect the remaining half of it city council with RCV for the first time and currently ranks 64th in women’s representation. 

For advocates of equitable representation of women, these findings show the importance of studying the impact of election structure and voting rules. For more information, contact Representation 2020 at FairVote, (301) 270-4616.

Our special thanks to summer intern Duncan Hosie for conducting this research.    

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