New Research Shows Ranked Choice Voting Helps Women Win

By Cynthia Richie Terrell on August 05, 2020

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San Francisco Mayor London Breed is among the women officials elected through ranked choice voting.

Nearly 100 years after a large number of American women won the right to vote, progress for women in politics in the United States remains slow. Women have made important gains, but remain dramatically underrepresented in proportion to our share of the population — especially women of color and Republican women. Men disproportionately dominate Congress, state legislatures, city councils, and other elective offices.

It's true that women hold more seats in the U.S. Senate than ever. But that high-water mark is staggeringly low: just 26 of 100. The numbers aren’t much better in state legislatures. Women hold just 29 percent of all state legislative seats nationwide, and make up a majority in precisely one state, Nevada. One hundred years after placing the right to vote in the Constitution, women are being asked to celebrate a glass that’s barely a quarter full.

The exciting news is that there's growing evidence that making one kind of change in our elections — enacting ranked choice voting — helps women run and helps women win. According to a new report from RepresentWomen, a nonpartisan organization that researches and advocates for systems strategies to advance women's representation that I founded and direct, 19 cities and counties have adopted RCV over the last decade for their local elections. In the 156 ranked choice elections that have been held in these jurisdictions, more than a third of the candidates were women. More than 35 percent of those women won. Almost 40 percent of the women who won were women of color.

The news is even better in mayoral and city council elections nationwide that use ranked choice voting. Half of all mayors and just under half — 49 percent — of all city council members in these cities are women.

Electoral experts have cited the benefits of RCV — which works like an instant runoff — for years. Instead of selecting one candidate, voters get to rank the field in order and indicate their second and third choices. If no one wins 50 percent of the vote during the first round, the candidate with the least support is knocked out and the instant runoff begins. Ranked choice puts an end to plurality winners and eliminates “spoiler” candidates, and research shows that it encourages more civil campaigns as well, as candidates compete to be a voter's “backup choice.”

Those advantages are important and real. But why is ranked choice voting also apparently so successful at breaking down barriers for women candidates and helping to create gender equity in so many jurisdictions where it's used? The RepresentWomen report finds that women are often deterred from running by negative campaigning in a traditional system, and attracted to the coalition building and grass-roots work necessary to win an RCV race. As a result, elections that use ranked choice voting tend to be more issue-based and substantive, providing voters with a better understanding of each candidates' positions. RCV races tend to cost less and can be more affordable for candidates to run.

Just as importantly, single-winner, plurality elections for the U.S. House and state legislatures protect incumbents — who tend to be white and male — and disadvantage challengers. Gerrymandered districts can determine outcomes for decades, making them safe for the status quo.

We have 100 years of evidence. Women voting isn't enough to bring equality into our politics. The system is still set up to advantage men. As a result, the Council on Foreign Relations ranked the United States 125th in the world in its 2020 Women's Power Index, much closer to the bottom than the top. The modern democracies that scored higher on parity have recruitment norms and voting systems like RCV that help elect more women and “mainstream” the idea of having women in power. Indeed, the many women heads of state — in Germany, New Zealand, and elsewhere — credited for quickly reducing the dangers from the COVID-19 pandemic all were first elected to their parliament through a proportional system.

The United States has a long tradition of attempting to address systemic problems with systemic solutions. Whether it's Title IX addressing gender parity in education, the Voting Rights Act, or the Americans With Disabilities Act, we know that the right way to combat inequality is to find an answer that gives everyone greater opportunity, even if problems persist with these remedies. The cracks in our political system have become an increasingly serious part of our political conversation. Ranked choice voting, meanwhile, is catching on nationwide, in part because of the number of electoral problems it helps solve.

Partisans from across the ideological spectrum have recognized the advantages of ranked choice voting — the partisan-neutral tool has been adopted for internal party elections and even some Congressional primaries and presidential primaries and caucuses. There are now ranked choice voting advocacy groups in 32 states and the District of Columbia, active statewide ballot measures in Alaska and Massachusetts, and measures pending ballot approval in North Dakota, Arkansas, and half a dozen cities.

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Maine is currently the only state to use ranked choice voting for statewide elections, but there are 62 pieces of ranked choice voting legislation pending in other states that would provide localities the option to use RCV or expand its use statewide. There are three bills that have been introduced in the 116th Congress related to RCV: the Fair Representation Act (HR 4000), which calls for ranked choice voting and the creation of multiseat districts for House races; the Ranked Choice Voting Act (HR 4464), which proposes the use of ranked choice voting for all elections to the U.S. House and Senate; and the Voter Choice Act (S 3340), which would provide federal grants to states transitioning to ranked choice voting.

Ranked choice voting, explained by Hasan Minhaj on his show, Patriot Act, is recommended by Robert's Rules of Order, is used at many colleges and universities and by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and has been endorsed by many leading newspapers including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Economist. This spring the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship added their voice to the chorus calling for the widespread adoption of ranked choice voting.

Women who fought for the right to vote wanted a system that would ensure genuine political equality between men and women. They wanted not just a seat at the table, but their fair share of seats. The best way to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment is by creating enduring electoral change that will help all women achieve parity in our politics.