RCV 101: How Single-Winner Plurality Voting Limits Women Candidates

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The U.S. Constitution provides few guidelines for how we elect our representatives, yet many voting rules and standards have hardly changed over time. As a result, most parts of the United States use a single-winner plurality system, otherwise known as "first-past-the-post", to determine the outcome of elections. 

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 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. 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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
  4. Single-winner plurality elections permit candidates to win with less than majority support. 

Did you know? 

Winner-take-all voting is one of many election systems used around the world, but most countries use proportional representation instead. According to our research, women are best represented in countries using proportional representation. Learn more about how electoral rules can be used to improve women's representation by reading our 2020 report, "Achieving Gender Parity: Systems Strategies Around the World."

Read Our Report