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Women’s political representation is vital to sustaining good governance worldwide. But while women comprise over half of the world’s population, men still hold the majority of seats in almost every legislature. Research has shown that diversity in political representation leads to more inclusive and effective lawmaking. Women, in particular, bring different forms of consensus building and attention to various policy issues, including but not limited to “women’s issues” such as healthcare, childcare, and education. This means that political processes and outcomes suffer when women are excluded from office.
RepresentWomen has been studying the relationship between voting systems and women’s political representation for the last five years. Through our research, we have found that voting systems shape opportunities for women to enter politics. In both the United States and around the world, cases like New York City, South Africa, and New Zealand further demonstrate the viability of major system changes and the potential impact of adopting a new voting system.
The following memo presents an update to our analysis of voting systems globally, their impact on women’s representation, and the case for proportional ranked choice voting in the United States. Where appropriate, we also discuss the role of complementary candidate-focused strategies and initiatives, such as gender quotas and candidate recruitment groups.
The goal of this memo is to equip our partners in the U.S. with updated data and supporting literature on the impact of proportional representation (PR) on women’s representation, drawing from stories of how PR improved women’s representation in the United States (1910s-1940s), South Africa (1990s-today), and New Zealand (1990s-today). This memo further builds the case for proportional ranked choice voting (PRCV) in the U.S., pushing back on recent efforts to introduce non-viable forms of PR. Previous research releases on this topic: 2020, 2019, 2018.
Voting systems inform how ballots are designed, how people cast their votes, how the results are counted, and how the winners are determined. The type of voting system used can greatly impact voter turnout, the role of political parties, candidate engagement, and representation. While there are many kinds of voting systems used around the world, there are three basic types:
- Plurality-Majority (Non-PR): Non-proportional systems allow the candidate with the most votes to be declared the winner. In plurality systems, a candidate can win with less than 50% of the vote; in majority systems, a runoff ensues if a candidate does not receive at least 50% of the vote.
- Proportional Representation (PR): In a proportional system, seats are allocated to parties in proportion to the total number of votes received. PR is used around the world in various forms; New Zealand uses a mixed member proportional system (MMP), South Africa uses a party list system, and several cities in the U.S. use proportional ranked choice voting (PRCV).
- Semi-Proportional (Semi-PR): Semi-proportional systems combine elements of non-PR and PR systems. Semi-PR systems are often more representative than non-PR systems because they ensure that political minorities are at least somewhat represented.
According to our research, women’s representation is lower in countries with plurality-majority systems because plurality systems reinforce existing barriers for women in politics; when a candidate only needs a plurality to win, political parties and donors are more likely to back “establishment” candidates (often white men) to improve their odds. Plurality voting also limits competition against incumbents and encourages negative campaigning, potentially deterring women from running in the first place.
Proportional representation (PR) yields the best opportunities for women. Unlike plurality systems, where a single candidate–and party–wins the district, multiple winners are elected to represent a single district in PR systems, and multiple political parties may be represented at a time. In addition to creating more opportunities for political minorities to be represented, PR systems tend to create more diverse legislatures, with more women and people of color nominated and elected. Overall, PR is the best way to ensure full and fair representation.
With the support of women’s organizations like the National League of Women Voters, PRCV was first adopted in the United States during the Progressive Era, leading to the milestone elections of women and people of color in cities like New York City. Though few original cities use the system today, a new wave of cities are now looking to adopt PRCV. Based on our research, RepresentWomen supports the adoption of PRCV over other forms of PR in the United States. In addition to being the only form of PR with a history of use in the U.S., it is also the only form of PR that is suited for nonpartisan elections, which are held in two-thirds of American cities.
The following memo presents an update to our 2020 analysis of voting systems in the U.S. and their impact on women’s representation.
Overall, we have found that women continue to fare better in jurisdictions that use ranked choice voting than in cities with plurality voting systems. Of the 30 cities that use ranked choice voting to elect their executives (mayors), 12 (40%) are currently represented by women. In the 41 cities that use ranked choice voting to elect their legislatures (councils, boards), almost half of all electeds (137 of 282, or 49%) are women.
RCV remains one of the most promising tools for advancing women’s representation in the United States.
For more information about our work and the resources we provide, please contact our team at [email protected].
Released: January 23, 2023
RCV is one of the most promising tools for advancing women’s representation in the United States. Of the 30 cities that use ranked choice voting to elect their executives (mayors), 12 (40%) are currently represented by women. In the 41 cities that use ranked choice voting to elect their legislatures (councils, boards), almost half of all electeds (137 of 282, or 49%) are women.
Systems-level strategies, like RCV, advance gender parity by creating a level playing field for all candidates and eliminating the opportunity barriers that exist under plurality voting. Though women are underrepresented at every level of government in the U.S., holding less than one-third of all elected positions, women in ranked choice jurisdictions are better represented.
Ranked Choice Voting creates more opportunities for women to run and win by:
- Mitigating vote splitting and the spoiler effect. Women, more often than men, are told to “wait their turn” and are viewed as less electable by party leaders in plurality elections. In RCV elections, multiple women can run without splitting the vote and spoiling an election.
- Increasing campaign civility. Positive campaigning benefits both candidates and voters. When candidates are less focused on launching or defending negative attacks from competitors, they can spend more time campaigning on issues that matter to voters to earn broader support.
- Removing a need for costly runoff elections. Runoffs are often expensive and lead to lower voter turnout. RCV mitigates this by acting as an “instant runoff” where voters’ second and third choices are counted immediately. For women candidates, who often need to outraise men to win, RCV helps them focus on what matters most: connecting with voters.
- Increasing candidate-voter engagement and voter turnout. In RCV, candidates are incentivized to seek broader support in the form of first-, second-, and third-choice votes. This approach results in voters feeling they have more of a stake in the election, boosting turnout.
Ranked choice voting advances women’s representation at the state and city level:
Women’s Representation in RCV Cities
The impact of RCV on women’s representation is best demonstrated at the local level, which has long been the testing ground for new voting systems. Of the 30 mayors in RCV cities today, 12 (40%) are women, nine are people of color (30%), and four are women of color (13%). In city councils, 137 of 282 RCV seats (49%) are held by women, 96 by people of color (34%), and 55 (20%) by women of color. Comparatively, women held 32% of all local offices as of March 2022.
Women’s Representation in RCV States
RCV is currently used at the state-level in two states, Maine and Alaska. Maine became the first state to use ranked choice voting in 2018. That same year, Janet Mills became the first woman governor of Maine and first governor elected by ranked choice voting following the state’s first ranked choice primary. In other statewide offices, there was a 6.4% increase in women candidates and 9.3% increase in women winners from the 2014/16 non-RCV elections to the 2018/20 RCV elections. Correspondingly, Maine’s parity score in our annual Gender Parity Index has steadily risen since RCV was first introduced. Alaska’s first use of RCV took place in 2022.