We Need to Change our Voting Systems to Elect More Women to Political Office

For many people interested in gender equality, the election of Hillary Clinton to the U.S. presidency would have been a significant achievement in the movement to secure more power for women. A female president would have represented a historic signal of equality, and the U.S. would no longer hold the ignominious reputation of never having elected a female head of state, a marker of progress 63 out of 142 nations in the world have already surpassed.

But as we all know, Clinton lost the presidency and the chances of the U.S. electing a woman president in the near future remain uncertain. However, it’s critical to realize that even if Clinton had won, the U.S. would still be extraordinarily behind other countries when it comes to gender parity in politics. In the U.S. House of Representatives, women hold only 19% of seats, and in the Senate, only 20 out of 100 Senators are women. In fact, the Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks the U.S. as 104th in the world when it comes to the proportion of women serving in government, ranking right behind Bulgaria and Madagascar.

The dearth of women in politics is a problem for a plethora of reasons, not the least of which is what it says about how well our country actually reflects core American values of equality, fairness, and opportunity for all. But the low number of women in politics also has practical ramifications in policy outcomes. A whole literature of research indicates that women officeholders behave differently from their male colleagues: they are more likely to introduce and advocate for legislation that advances the interests of women and families, and they are also more likely to work collaboratively and build consensus, making them more effective as legislators. Electing more women to office will produce better outcomes for American families, outcomes that will be accomplished with dignity to boot.

Although a lot of people agree that we need more women in politics, there are far fewer people doing the kind of work that is essential to getting them there. Some organizations hold trainings for potential women candidates and work to encourage more women to run for office. These organizations are guided by the belief that women need more encouragement and support than men to take the initial step to run for office, and research backs this assumption up—several studies find that women are less politically ambitious than men and are less likely to believe they are qualified to run for office. Therefore, it is not voter sexism or discrimination that keeps women out of politics, it is women’s own reluctance to run in the first place, these organizations say (and research confirms).

But while working to close the political ambition gap between men and women is critically important work, on its own it is insufficient to achieve gender parity in politics. The reasons for this lie in the fabrics that make up American political institutions. Simply put, women do not have enough real opportunities to run for office and win. In elections for the House of Representatives, over 95% of incumbents get re-elected, limiting the opportunity for anyone who is not a white man to gain power.

Because of extraordinarily high incumbent re-election rates, women and other non-traditional candidates have the best chance of picking up seats in open contests, when there is no incumbent competing. But in 2016, out of 435 elections in the House, only 45 were for open seats. This is the primary reason why the percentage of women officeholders has stagnated–there are too few chances for women to run and win. In fact, without changing the voting institutions that guarantee the incumbency advantage, gender parity will remain an elusive dream.

Women in other industrialized nations are not inherently more ambitious or confident than American women; they live in countries with political institutions that open up more opportunities for nontraditional candidates to emerge and hold power. Studies of women’s representation in other countries have shown that different electoral systems—like proportional representation—are much more favorable to the election of women. That is why of the top 20 countries for women’s representation, 19 of them have election systems based on proportional representation. 

In the U.S., candidates in congressional elections run in single-member, winner-take-all districts, meaning only the winner—the candidate who gets the most votes—gets elected. But some state legislatures use multi-member districts, which means more than one candidate can win a seat. In many districts, one party dominates elections again and again, leaving voters who support the opposing party completely unrepresented. In multi-member districts, members get elected according to their party’s vote share—for example, if one district has four seats, and 50% of the vote is for the Democrats and 50% for Republicans, two Democrats get elected and two Republicans get seats too. This scenario also allows for the emergence of third-party candidates, who actually have a shot at picking up seats as well.

Multi-member districts create more opportunities for non-incumbents and non-traditional candidates to run for office and win election. Ten states in America currently use multi-member districts in at least one legislative chamber, and these states rank among the highest for women’s representation among state legislatures. Multi-member districts help to reduce the advantages incumbents enjoy, thereby creating more opportunities not only for women, but for people of color and third-party candidates.

So if we want to get serious about addressing the embarrassingly low number of women in politics, as well as the low number of other non-traditional candidates (people of color, third-party candidates), we to change the institutions we use to elect our leaders. We may also find that doing so not only opens more opportunities for new candidates to emerge, but that voters themselves benefit from increased choice and new ideas. Many voters complained that the 2016 presidential contest presented them with two inadequate choices for candidates: 63%–nearly two-thirds of American voters–said they were dissatisfied with their choices. Oftentimes, this feeling of having no real choice produces voter apathy and disengagement, threatening the health of American democracy. Using voting reforms to open the door for different types of candidates might also help engage voters by giving them more and better choices.

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