By Cynthia Richie Terrell on January 21, 2016
By Sarah Weltz Geselowitz
Women are severely underrepresented in state government, making up just over 50% of the US population but less than 25% of state legislators nationwide (as of 2015). The factors informing this scanty representation are complex, but the result is clear: women’s voices, perspectives, and concerns are underrepresented in the seats of state power.
Old Problem, Old Research
As early as the 1980s, political scientists explored the relationship between electoral structure and women’s representation. Could the way a state is divided into electoral districts affect the proportion of women elected to a state legislature? Consistently these studies found that women candidates fared better in multi-winner districts and worse in single-winner districts.
multi-winner district: a legislative district electing more than one legislator
single-winner district: a legislative district electing a single legislator
In a 1985 study,Robert Darcy, Susan Welch, and Janet Clark suggested reasons for this trend. They drew a distinction between two types of disadvantaged groups: 1) geographically concentrated groups, including many ethnic minorities, and 2) non-geographically concentrated groups, including women. A geographically concentrated minority may benefit from single-winner districts; this is because such districts can be drawn in ways that group together and thereby empower members of the minority. But women, being relatively evenly distributed, miss out on this grouping effect.
Due to cultural norms, Darcy, Welch, and Clark posited, a woman was relatively unlikely to receive support as the single representative of a given region; but she might have greater success being elected as one of several representatives for a region. Both voters and the political actors recruiting behind the scenes would hesitate to support a woman as the sole representative of a region. These recruitment and voting behaviors stem from misgivings about women’s electability and fitness for office--misgivings which, unfortunately, remain widespread. However, voters and political actors, the authors guessed, would be more likely to support a woman as part of a team of potential representatives. Multi-winner districts would thus give women a greater chance to be recruited and elected.
The study paired these speculations with striking empirical evidence: women candidates, the authors reported, consistently fared better in multi-winner districts than in single-winner districts. The study considered 14 different states that, at some point between 1962 and 1980, had both multi- and single-winner districts. Consistently, greater proportions of female candidates were elected from the multi-winner districts than from the single-winner districts. The results of the four most recent data points (from the 1980s) are summarized below:
Published in the 1980s, this and other studies laid the groundwork for a body of research linking multi-winner districts and women’s representation. Now, over thirty years later, new data continue to support this link.
Since the mid-20th century, multi-winner districts have been in decline in the United States. Historically, this shift reflected crucial concerns for the empowerment of African American voters. In 1967, a federal law mandated single-winner districts for U.S. House elections. The law aimed to prevent Southern states from using winner-take-all multi-winner districts to dilute the voting power of African Americans, many of whom were newly enfranchised by the Voting Rights Act (1965). States also shifted away from multi-winner districts to elect state legislatures. In 1985, at the time of Darcy, Welch and Clark’s study, sixteen states used multi-winner districts to elect some or all legislators (see Niemi, Hill and Groffman 1985); today, only ten states use any multi-winner districts.
This history points to an apparent tension between a voting system that benefits women, and one that benefits African Americans. "Policymakers,” predicted Darcy, Welch and Clark, “will be faced with a perplexing choice."
In fact, however, there is no need to choose between the empowerment of African Americans and women. States could pair multi-winner districts, which have been shown to benefit women, with ranked choice voting, which has been shown to increase representation of both women and racial minorities.
Together, these voting reforms would ensure that every group has a fair chance at representation. Cambridge, Massachusetts, which combines these features in its municipal elections, provides a hopeful model; since 1980, African Americans have always been represented in the city’s two municipal bodies, despite making up less than 15% of the population. Women, too, have seen increased representation; in the period 1997-2001, they made up between one- and two- thirds of both municipal bodies.
Female underrepresentation is no doubt a multi-faceted problem, with deep cultural elements. But a long tradition of research shows us that there are structural dimensions to this problem. If we want to bring women’s talents and perspectives into elected office, it is critical that we push for structural reform.