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Voting Reforms

RepresentWomen tracks women's representation and leadership in the United States and around the world to identify the "best practices" for creating a more representative government. Our research indicates that even as more women run, electoral rules and systems play a major role in determining electoral outcomes. As seen in both our 2016 and 2020 reports, we find that electoral outcomes for women and people of color are overall better in jurisdictions that have implemented ranked choice voting (RCV)

Our 2020 ranked choice voting report, "In Ranked Choice Elections, Women WIN" provides a thorough review of ranked choice voting in the United States and how it is impacting women's representation in the cities that have implemented it. Over the last decade, 19 cities and counties have used ranked choice voting to elect sitting city officials, including 13 mayors and the city councilmembers in 14 jurisdictions. Over the last decade (2010-2019), women have won 45% of all municipal ranked choice elections. As of April 2020, nearly half of all mayors (46%) and 49% of all city council seats decided by RCV are held by women.

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At the start of 2020, women held just over a quarter of all available seats in government, from national and state-level office, to major local-level offices. Recent progress towards parity, however incremental it may be, reflects the record-breaking gains women made in 2018. And yet, not all women benefitted equally after the midterm elections, with large representation gaps remaining for women across party, race, and geography. At RepresentWomen, our research indicates that even as more women run, electoral rules and systems still play a major role in determining outcomes for women candidates. While many other countries have succeeded in electing more women to office by modernizing their voting rules and systems and adopting additional affirmative measures, the election system used in the United States systematically disadvantages women. 

Single-Winner Plurality Voting Disadvantages Women

At the national level, the United States follows a single-winner plurality system, otherwise known as the "winner-take-all" system, which permits candidates to win elections with less than majority support. In single-winner plurality elections, voters select their preferred candidates for each seat listed on the ballot. After the votes are tallied, the person who received the most votes is declared the winner of the election, even if they receive less than the majority of the vote. Single-winner plurality voting disadvantages women at nearly every stage of the electoral process, and the evidence is as follows: 

  1. Single-winner plurality elections protect incumbents and disadvantage challengers. In single-winner systems, district lines decide the outcome of elections years before Election Day. And more than 80% of all Congressional districts are safe for the parties that hold them. Women, who already fare best in open-seat races, are even less likely to win as challengers in noncompetitive races. 
  2. Single-winner plurality elections are prone to a "spoiler effect," in which similar candidates run and split the vote within a district. The system incentivizes party leaders to ask candidates -- and particularly women of color -- to "wait their turn," rather than run against a preferred candidate and risk splitting the vote. 
  3. Single-winner plurality elections foster negative campaigning, which is both costly and inhospitable to women considering a run for office. Recent research suggests that women are often deterred from running for office due to the prevalence of negative campaigning in single-winner plurality systems. 
  4. Single-winner plurality elections are subject to expensive, low turnout runoffs in the event of a close race. Systems that do not include automatic runoff elections create longer and more expensive campaign seasons; runoff elections are further plagued by lower rates of voter turnout
  5. Single-winner plurality elections permit candidates to win with less than majority support. This is crucial for women because elected officials govern better when they have majority support. 

How to Level the Playing Field: Fair Representation Voting

An election system that systematically disadvantages women will not render a reflective democracy. Therefore, in place of this single-winner plurality system, the U.S. should adopt a proportional voting system at the national level. According to our research, the best fair representation voting model for women would be one that makes use of ranked choice voting (RCV) and multi-winner districts (MWDs) to proportionally represent communities across the United States. 

Ranked choice voting is an election system in which voters can rank candidates in order of preference. When tabulating the results, each voter's first choice is counted. If a candidate receives a majority of the vote, they win the seat. But if no candidate reaches a majority, then the candidate who received the fewest votes is eliminated. The ballots with the eliminated candidate ranked first are then recounted for their second choice candidate. If no one reaches a majority after the second round, the process continues until a candidate wins with majority support. 

Ranked choice voting can be used in both single-winner and multi-winner races. On average, the percentage of the population represented by at least one woman increases dramatically with the use of multi-winner districts. In a multi-winner ranked choice system, representatives win seats based on how the voters rank each candidate. Voters in Cambridge, MA have been electing city councilors and school committee members in multi-winner ranked choice elections since 1941. 

How Does Ranked Choice Voting Help Elect More Women? 

Ranked choice voting mitigates some of the barriers to representation that prevail in single-winner plurality systems. Specifically:

  1. Ranked choice voting eliminates vote splitting and spoilers. In a ranked choice election, multiple women can run without having to worry about spoiling the election. In a ranked choice election, there are fewer incentives for gatekeepers, or party leaders, to discourage women and people of color from running, and fewer reasons for would-be candidates to refrain from running in the first place. 
  2. Ranked choice voting incentivizes positive campaigning. RCV elections are more civil because candidates have an incentive to find common ground with one another as they seek support from their competitors' supporters. Ranked choice voting encourages coalition-building and grassroots community campaigning, both of which tend to focus on the positives and similarities between candidates. Anecdotal evidence suggests that women are more likely to run in a positive campaign environment and are more comfortable asking voters to rank them as their second or third choice. 
  3. Ranked choice voting rewards issue-focused campaigns. Rather than spend time and money on attack ads, candidates in ranked choice voting elections can focus on leading more substantive, issue-focused campaigns. Such campaigns open up time for civil debates regarding policy and constituency-specific issues, helping voters get a better idea of who they want to vote for and providing a better platform for women candidates. 
  4. Ranked choice elections are more affordable. RCV elections eliminate the need for voters to return to the voting booth for a runoff election. Because this consolidates the election season, cities and candidates save money. Ranked choice elections also lower the cost of running for candidates; this can be particularly important for women candidates who are running for local-level positions for the first time. 
  5. Ranked choice elections ensure representative outcomes. Overall, ranked choice voting ensures that candidates in single-winner elections win with a true majority, rather than a plurality of the vote. Elected officials -- especially those who are considered "nontraditional" leaders -- govern better when they have the mandate to lead. 

Our Research

In 2016, RepresentWomen (then known as Representation 2020) studied the impact of single-winner ranked choice voting in the California Bay Area (Berkeley, Oakland, San Francsico, and San Leandro), a "hotbed of RCV implementation," where over 100 ranked choice elections had taken place between 2004 and 2014 to decide local leadership in 53 offices. The study found that more women (42%) and people of color (60%) ran in and won these elections since ranked choice voting was introduced. By the start of 2016, women held 59% and people of color held 60% of these offices.

Four years later, our data shows that ranked choice voting has continued to have a positive impact on descriptive representation. Out of the 156 local-level ranked choice elections that took place between 2010 and 2019, 34% of all candidates were women, and 35% of these women won. Of the women who won, 38% were women of color. Overall, women won 48% of the individual seats up for election. By the start of 2020, half of all mayors and nearly half (49%) of all city council members elected by RCV were women. 

Our research shows that ranked choice voting has had a sustained, positive impact on women's representation over the last few decades. With our 2020 report, we worked to build a stronger case for adopting ranked choice voting at the national level. Please review the full text of the report to learn more about what ranked choice voting is and its history in the United States (1912 - 2020), where ranked choice voting is used (both in the U.S. and around the world), how well women fared in ranked choice elections over the last decade, and why ranked choice voting seems to be successful at addressing the structural barriers women candidates face. 

To learn more about the role of ranked choice voting in electing women over the last decade, please review the following blog written by RepresentWomen research fellow, Maura Reilly: HERE

A Note About the Data Presented

The data used in this report was collected and analyzed by the RepresentWomen team, though we consulted with FairVote to ensure that all demographic information about candidates and electeds who participated in qualifying ranked choice elections was appropriately captured. All original election data should be publicly available on the official government pages run by each jurisdiction. Please feel encouraged to reach out to our team if you have any further questions about the data presented. 

For the purpose of this report, our team reviewed all local-level ranked choice elections that took place between 2010 and 2019, and had at least three candidates in the running by Election Day. For any section that tracks representatives who hold office in 2020, please note that some of these elected officials ran against fewer than three candidates, and so ranked choice voting was not activated. We only include them when we discuss who is now in office, so that we can better understand how well women and people of color are represented. 

Live Data: Meet the 2020 Ranked Choice Voting Electeds

Over the course of the year, the RepresentWomen will continue to provide updates to our data as needed, with the goal of releasing a revised copy of this report in 2021, to include all remaining data from this year. As things presently stand, 13 cities have used ranked choice voting to elect their sitting mayors, and 14 cities have used ranked choice voting to elect representatives to their city councils. 

Who are the Mayors of Ranked Choice Cities? (46% Women)

Thirteen cities have used ranked choice voting to elect their current mayors. At the start of 2020, six out of twelve mayors elected by ranked choice voting were women, including Mayors Libby Schaaf (Oakland, CA), London Breed (San Francsico, CA), Pauline Cutter (San Leandro, CA), DeLanie Young (Telluride, CO), Kate Stewart (Takoma Park, MD), and Kate Snyder (Portland, ME).

In April 2020, Basalt held its first ranked choice mayoral election and elected Bill Kane, who ran in a three-way race and received over 50% of the vote in the first and final round. Because he received majority support in the first round, there was no reallocation of votes and Kane was declared the winner. Following the election of Bill Kane, women hold 46% (6) of the 12 RCV-elected mayoral seats in the U.S. 

infogram_0_30f82ba8-a2a5-4ac6-a462-d55646be56abRCV Mayors - Gender and Race

Who are the City Councilors in Ranked Choice Cities? (49% Women)

Fourteen cities have used ranked choice voting to elect their city councilmembers. At the start of 2020, nearly half (49%) of these representatives were women, and over a third (37%) were people of color. Seven cities that use ranked choice voting to elect their city councilors have either achieved or surpassed gender parity. These cities include: Berkeley, CA; St. Paul, MN; Santa Fe, NM; Takoma Park, MD; St. Louis Park, MN; Las Cruces, NM and Oakland, CA. 

infogram_0_6a5ae469-e142-4655-bc08-b8f507f7d338Women's Representation on RCV City Councils


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