By Alissa Bombardier Shaw and Steph Scaglia
For the past five years, RepresentWomen has been building up our research on reforms and policies that lead to increased and sustained women’s representation in elected office. Excitingly, year after year, our findings have remained consistent, and this year is no exception; ranked choice voting (RCV) means more women run for office and win. While progress toward gender balance is generally slow and uneven, historic wins for women in RCV cities show that, with systems strategies, not only is change possible, it’s happening in real time.
Our work seeks to bridge the gap between the women’s representation movement and the democracy reform movement by showing the link between systems strategies such as ranked choice voting and increased opportunities for women in politics. As of November 2023, 46 cities have adopted ranked choice voting. On election day last week, 11 of these RCV cities across six states held elections, and RCV has proven once again to yield positive outcomes for women.
What is RCV, and how does it benefit women?
In RCV elections, voters rank candidates in order of preference. Once the polls close, all first-choice votes are counted. If a candidate receives a majority of the vote, they are declared the winner. But, if no candidate receives a majority of votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and those votes are transferred to the voters’ second-choice candidate. So, if your first-choice candidate is eliminated, your vote stays in play and is rolled to your second choice, and so on, until a candidate crosses the majority threshold.
RCV creates opportunities for women to enter politics for several reasons:
- Because voters rank candidates in order of preference, RCV eliminates vote splitting, dismantling the idea that women should “wait their turn” to avoid spoiling an election.
- Since candidates compete for second and third-choice votes, RCV encourages coalition building and civil, issue-focused campaigns. This makes running for office less toxic and more appealing for nontraditional candidates such as women.
- RCV is more cost-effective. Without the need for runoff elections or negative smear campaigns for opponents, RCV levels the playing field, as women often need to out-raise and outspend men to win.
Historic Wins for Women Under RCV
Of the eleven cities that held RCV elections this cycle, six cities had RCV-viable (meaning 3 or more candidates) races with women candidates. In RCV-viable city council races, women consisted of roughly 40% of the total candidates and won an impressive 68% of the seats. In addition, under RCV, Cambridge, Massachusets, Portland, Maine, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and New York City, New York (NYC) elected woman-majority councils, and in NYC, the majority of those women are women of color (for the second time in a row).
City councils that have woman-majorities are few and far between. Even fewer are city councils with only women members. Yet this year, we had not one, but two cities elect all women city councils. For the first time in history, St. Paul’s council and Minnetonka’s council will be all women. What do these two cities have in common? Both use ranked choice voting for their elections. (If you’re curious what the St. Paul city council looked like before it started using RCV, check out this news archive.)
In Santa Fe, New Mexico’s city council race, we saw how RCV can help level the playing field. Despite being well outspent by her primary opponent, Alma Castro won over 50% of votes after 3 rounds of vote tabulation, with second and third-choice rankings playing a crucial role. Kathleen Rivera, eliminated in the second round, told the Santa Fe New Mexican that the “woman vote” played a key role: numerous Rivera women voters said they wanted to vote a woman into office, thus ranking Castro second.
Following the November 7th elections, women now make up 52% of RCV-elected city councils (154 of 296 seats in 40 cities). The impact of RCV on women’s representation is undeniable.
RCV Ballot Measure Victories
Proportional RCV (PRCV), a form of ranked choice voting where multiple winners are chosen in the same election to represent one district, was on the ballot and passed in three cities this election: Kalamazoo, Michigan; Royal Oak, Michigan; and East Lansing, Michigan. Despite efforts to repeal PRCV, like in Minnetonka, Minnesota, voters across the country and across the aisle support RCV. In Easthampton, Massachusetts, voters said yes (62%) to expanding their existing RCV system to allow multi-winner RCV. RCV has now won 27 city ballot measures in a row.
Ballot initiatives like these pave the way for equal opportunity for women to run and win in 2024 and beyond because the impact on representation outcomes goes even deeper when using PRCV. This system has all of the benefits of RCV elections, where there is only one winner, but has additional opportunities for nontraditional candidates because multiple constituencies are able to elect candidates of choice in the same election.
Currently used across five localities and even in Cambridge since 1941, PRCV has a strong and reputable history of delivering equitable outcomes for women and traditionally underserved groups, as highlighted in our research.
A thriving democracy must be one with equal and equitable opportunities for all and must foster and sustain gender-balanced governance. In order to achieve this, it’s time we invest in system strategies and reforms that most effectively allow women to run, win, serve, and lead. Head over to our website to learn more about how reforms, like ranked choice voting, are building women’s political power.