Posted on Take Action on March 02, 2021
Our research shows that even as more women run for elected office, electoral rules and systems continue to play a substantial role in barriers women face in achieving fair representation. Our current plurality-win system favors incumbents at the cost of non-incumbents who tend to be more diverse both in terms of race and gender. In order for women to win at the same rates as men, we must take intentional steps to eliminate the barriers they face.
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Learn how to take action on specific reforms and systems strategies below.
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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 (MMDs) 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-member districts.
*Please note that not all multi-member 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-member 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-member districts (SMDs) - in which one representative is elected to serve a single district.
- At present, the majority of states use single-member districts to elect U.S. House Representatives.
Multi-member districts (MMDs) - in which two or more representatives are elected to serve a single district.
- Most of the original 13 states used multi-member districts (MMDs) 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:
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:
Women's representation in state legislatures has grown steadily since 1976. Seven of the ten state legislatures that use multi-member districts have more women legislators than the national average (29%). The overall average of women's representation in state legislatures using MMDs (33%) is also higher than it is in those using SMDs.
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 MMDs and began electing its representatives in SMDs instead. In 2020, women make up just 16% of the state legislature.
Why are women more likely to be elected in MMDs?
Political science research suggests that multi-member 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-member 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!
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:
Posted on Our Research on October 14, 2020
When the House of Representatives was established in 1789, there were 65 seats, with a representation ratio of 1 to 60,000. The number of seats in the House steadily increased as the population grew and the United States expanded, until the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929 which capped the "People's House" at 435 seats, where it remains today.
Increasing the size of the House would help to mitigate partisanship and gerrymandering, lessen the impact of money in politics, and improve the descriptive representation of women and people of color. Expanding the House to 593 seats, as per the cube root rule, implementing ranked choice voting and multi-member districts, women's representation would rise from 101 (the number as of January 2020) to 193. Due to the protections enjoyed by incumbents, most of whom are white men, the most effective way of increasing women and people of color's representation is through open-seats. By expanding the size of the House underrepresented populations will have a greater opportunity to elect a representative of their choosing.
In the past century, while the the size of the House has remained stagnant, the population has continued to grow and the representation ratio has ballooned to 1 representative for every 747,000 constituents. Not only does the U.S. have one of the most disproportionate representation ratio is the world, the average constituencies is likely to reach 1 million residents between 2040 and 2050.
Little is written about the what the size of the House should be in the U.S. Constitution, it only mentions there should be no more than one representative for every 30,000 constituents and the number of representatives should be determined by the population as calculated in the decennial census. James Madison wrote in Federalist 55 "I take for granted ... that the number of representatives will be augmented from time to time in the manner provided by the Constitution." Many Americans feel alienated from their representatives in what was supposed to be the "People's House," the only body to be directly elected by the people from its establishment, increasing the size is not only constitutional but will have many positive effects.
Posted on Our Challenge on July 25, 2019
RepresentWomen compiles information about the current status of women's representation through research from other organizations as well as through our own original research.
To learn more about our research and to see how each U.S. state ranks in terms of women's representation, check out the 2020 Gender Parity Index.