Voting Reform

Ranked Choice Voting

Posted on Women Win on March 02, 2021

Ranked choice voting is currently used in 21 jurisdictions (and counting) in the United States and many other countries around the world. Our 2016 and 2020 reports found that in municipalities using ranked choice voting women and people of color had better electoral outcomes.

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Our partners in this reform include: FairVote; American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Rep. Don Beyer (Va.); Rep. Jamie Raskin (Md.)

District Design

Posted on Our Research on October 25, 2020

Our research finds that election rules and systems impact women's representation in government. In the U.S. and other countries, women have fared best when there is proportional representation (PR). For more information about the rules and systems used around the world, please turn to our international research.

In the United States, multi-winner ranked choice voting is the best way to achieve proportional representation. In the sections below, we'll cover the importance of district design for women's representation, but please note that RepresentWomen only advocates for multi-winner districts (MWDs) in ranked choice elections. To learn more about ranked choice voting, please turn to our latest research on voting reforms

Although multi-winner districts were once used to elect Congressional delegates to the U.S. House Representatives, today, our best examples come from state legislative chambers, cities, and counties. In the graph below, you'll find the percent of women elected to state legislatures that use multi-winner districts. 

infogram_0_6f5be39d-2ac1-4e71-9df2-21c655483db7Women's Representation in MMDs 2020

*Please note that not all multi-winner districts are created the same. And that women will tend to be better-represented in districts that elect three to five representatives than in two-winner districts. 

What are voting districts?

In the United States, state legislatures have the authority to partition their states into smaller subdivisions - or voting districts - from which representatives may be elected. In some districts, voters are represented by a single representative. In others, two or more people may be elected to represent a single constituency.

There are three types of voting districts in the United States:

  • Single-winner districts (SWDs) - in which one representative is elected to serve a single district. Also known as "single-member districts" (SMDs) or "single-seat districts".
    • At present, the majority of states use single-winner districts to elect U.S. House Representatives. 
  • Multi-winner districts (MWDs) - in which two or more representatives are elected to serve a single district. Also known as "multi-member districts" (MMDs) or "multi-seat districts".
    • Most of the original 13 states used multi-winner districts (MWDs) in Congressional elections. This practice ended in 1842. 
    • Of the 7,383 seats available in all state legislatures, 15% (1,082) are elected from districts that have more than one representative. 
  • At-large - in which there are no districts and representatives are elected to serve all voters within the state, city, or county as a single constituency. 
    • At-large voting is used to elect U.S. House Representatives in states that have only one Representative.
    • There are seven states that currently elect U.S. House Representatives at-large: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.
    • All fifty states elect two U.S. Senators at large on staggered schedules.

How does district design impact women's representation?

The number of representatives elected from a single district to the same legislative body is a matter of district design (or district magnitude). Our research shows that electoral outcomes for women can vary significantly depending on the number of representatives elected. 

Consider the following graph:

infogram_0_536f6972-961d-4107-adbf-c5a667bb5232MMD Comparison with SMD

Maryland, New Hampshire, and West Virginia each use a combination of multi-winner and single-winner districts in their state legislatures. All else equal, women are consistently better-represented in multi-winner districts over single-winner districts. 

Now consider the next graph: 

infogram_0_08538524-fb9c-454e-a893-5ea09862348aMMD v. SMD Women's Rep. Avg. 1976-2020

Women's representation in state legislatures has grown steadily since 1976. Seven of the ten state legislatures that use multi-winner districts have more women legislators than the national average (29%). The overall average of women's representation in state legislatures using MWDs (33%) is also higher than it is in those using SWDs. 

Here is a case-example that demonstrates the importance of district design for women's representation. In the 1980s, Wyoming was one of the highest-ranking states for women's representation in state legislatures, with their representation reaching a peak of 34% in 1986. In 1992, the state ended its use of MWDs and began electing its representatives in SWDs instead. In 2020, women make up just 16% of the state legislature. 

Why are women more likely to be elected in MWDs? 

Political science research suggests that multi-winner districts improve women’s representation for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Political parties perceive that they will be rewarded by voters for having a more diverse candidate pool. Having larger districts makes parties more likely to recruit and field more diverse candidates - including both women and people of color - in an effort to appeal to more voters. 
  • Voters are more likely to vote for women if they can balance their ballots by also voting for a man. This is premised on voters being biased against women candidates, so women are more likely to win when there will be more than one winner in a district's election. 
  • With larger candidate pools, candidates are less likely to engage in person-to-person attacks and more likely to focus on making a positive case for themselves. This can also make women more likely to enter the race in the first place. 
  • In theory, women are more likely to win in open-seat races. Since multi-winner districts have a higher rate of turnover, there are more races for women to run and win in. *Please note that much of the existing literature is split on this point; our team is in the process of researching the impact of district design on the incumbency advantage, so please stay tuned for more information! 

Our Proposal

In our annual Gender Parity Index, we credit states with achieving progress towards gender parity while noting how incremental and uneven progress has been. In the absence of systems-based approaches, progress towards parity will continue to lag behind its full potential - even as more women begin to run for office. 

To achieve gender parity in our lifetimes, we need to support systems-based approaches to leveling the playing field and adopt multi-winner ranked choice voting on a national scale. With our partners at FairVote, we have conducted research on what this could look like in the U.S. House.

See the following map:

infogram_0_bd82aeca-ccaa-4215-bddf-3b9d972a8d38FRA Projected Impact on Representation


Voting Reforms

Posted on Our Research on November 17, 2019

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 48% 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.

Download 2020 Data 2021 NYC Primaries Rankit App Contact Us 


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% (109 of 227) 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. 

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. 

Case Studies

Single-Winner RCV in Oakland, CA 2010-2020

infogram_0_ddd0aeb4-4520-44c9-9e76-cca72b0d2e2fRCV - Oakland Deep Dive

Multi-Winner RCV in Cambridge, MA 2010-2020

infogram_0_15c3f073-9a77-44d5-af0b-09d4da632850RCV - Cambridge Deep Dive

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 13 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



Women's Representation in Chile: Comparative Analysis of Gender Balance Legislation in Chile and Bolivia

Posted on Blog by on July 29, 2019

Chile is the country with the highest GDP per capita and Human Development Index in South America, yet it was one of the last countries to enact a gender quota law in the region. Though higher levels of economic development should be paired with greater gender parity, the reality is that Chile ranks 84th in the world in terms of the percentage of women in Congress, with just 23 percent in the Lower and Upper Houses.

Women Winning

Posted on Our Solutions on July 24, 2017

Electoral Reforms Drive Change

Our mission is to reform the institutions and structures holding women back from getting involved in politics. Recruiting, training, and funding women candidates will be more effective once our electoral systems stop systemically disadvantaging women.

Below are suggestions on how to dismantle these barriers for women candidates.

Take Action 

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