Representation and RCV: A Long Term Solution

By Kaycie Goral on August 07, 2020

By Kaycie Goral 


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In recent years many records have been broken for women’s representation in the U.S. Including three female supreme court justices, a record number of congresswomen elected in 2018, the first female major-party nominee, and a historic number of women and minority candidates running in the 2020 presidential primaries. However, despite these victories, women hold just over 25% of national and state-level elected offices, and estimates suggest the United States is 208 years away from achieving gender equality. So why are we still so far from parity and equality despite years of supposed electoral “victories” for women?

To put it simply: it's our electoral system.

Nationally, the United States follows a single-winner plurality system, also known as winner-take-all; and, despite the fair sounding name, it often results in a candidate winning with less than a majority of votes. This system protects incumbents, rewards negative partisanship and is often subject to expensive, low-turnout runoffs. This contentious voter method incentivizes party leaders to exclude “spoiler” candidates (more often women of color)  from viability,  so as not to risk splitting the party vote. 

The winner-take-all election system actively discourages women from running, and systematically reduces their odds of success. Our current system will never produce a reflective democracy. It is time for change. For a truly representative government, the United States should look to the electoral reform of ranked-choice voting (RCV).

In a single-winner, ranked choice election, voters rank candidates in order of preference. When recording the results, each first choice is counted. If a candidate receives a majority of first choice votes, they win. If not, the candidate who received the fewest votes is eliminated, and the votes for the eliminated candidate are redistributed to the second choice vote. This process continues until a candidate wins a majority (50% +1) of votes. RCV can also be used in multi-winner districts in which candidates must win a proportion of the possible votes most often determined by the droop quota. However, ranked choice voting is most commonly used in single-members districts in the U.S.

Along with ensuring a candidate wins with majority support, our recent report In Ranked Choice Elections, Women WIN, found that ranked choice voting has proven benefits for improving the representation of women and minorities. By, 

  • Eliminating vote splitting and spoiler candidates: Multiple women and “minority” candidates can run in a RCV election without splitting the vote, preventing the common argument from political parties which calls for women and people of color to “wait their turn.”
  • Incentivizing positive campaigns: RCV encourages coalition-building and grassroots community campaigning, both of which tend to focus on the positives and commonalities shared by candidates.
  • Rewarding issue-focused campaigns: Rather than spend time and money on attack ads, candidates in ranked choice elections lead more substantive, issue-focused campaigns; focusing on the policy issues their community is facing.
  • Allowing more affordable elections: With the focus on grassroots and positive campaigning less money is spent on expensive ads, lowering the cost of running. This can be particularly important for women candidates who often receive less financial support, especially when they are open-seat or challenger candidates.
  • Ensuring representation: Overall, RCV allows candidates to win with a true majority rather than a plurality of the vote.

In the past decade 156 ranked choice elections took place in the U.S. and 48% (109 of 227) of the individual seats contested were won by women. Of the women winners, 38% were women of color. At the start of 2020, half of all mayors and 49% of all city councillors elected by RCV were women. It is clear, if women and minorities are to achieve proper representation in the government, ranked choice voting must be part of the solution. 

Kaycie is a Communications Fellow for RepresentWomen. She is a recent graduate from American University with a BA in communications and criminal justice. Follow Kaycie on Twitter:@d_Kaycie