Can Multi-Winner Districts Increase Women's Representation?

By Cynthia Terrell on July 07, 2016

By Xiaojing Zeng and Orion Marchese

Partisan views aside, Hillary Clinton becoming the first female presumptive major party presidential nominee in United States history is an unforgettable accomplishment. Inevitably, however, Clinton’s success raises varying questions about the gender gap in politics.

For example, following the 2014 elections, only one (New Hampshire) out of 50 states has reached gender parity - that is, an equal number of women have been elected to local, state, executive, and federal offices. Only 20% of the U.S. Senate and 19.3% of the U.S. House of Representatives are women. The statistics are even more shocking when looking at other countries; according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the United States currently ranks 97th in terms of gender parity worldwide. Compared to countries with similar democracies such as Mexico (ranked #19), Germany (ranked #26), United Kingdom (ranked #48), and Canada (ranked #62), it is clear that this country lags behind when it comes to female participation in legislatures.

While many authors and social scientists have made it clear to Americans that perceptions of bias or stereotypes play a huge role in the underrepresentation of women, there is another common factor that is often hidden from the public eye: the electoral structure itself.

Currently, the U.S. House of Representatives and most state legislatures are composed of members elected within single-winner districts. In this type of election, states are divided into districts, with one specific representative elected from every district. Citizens elect officials for their district using a winner-take-all voting method where the winner is the candidate who receives the most votes, but not necessarily the majority of votes. This can become problematic for representation in politically or racially diverse communities. Winner-take-all elections create a zero-sum situation that places importance on arbitrary geographic boundaries that encourage gerrymandering, polarize voters, and leave nearly half the community without representation .

However, the lack of representation can be ameliorated through the use of the multi-winner districts. In this system, more than one candidate wins in each district. Studies have shown that this type of electoral process can increase the number of women in office.

The first explanation for this positive effect is that parties are more likely to nominate candidates that can balance out the diversity of their slate in order to show that they are inclusive and representative of the population. For example, in states such as New Hampshire, voters are willing to vote for women of the opposing party if none were on the ticket from their own party. This suggests that citizens are more willing to vote across party lines when female candidates are present. In order to maintain political support, parties may find it strategic to include women on the ballot.

Second, the incumbency advantage can be offset, as multi-winner systems increase competition and facilitate the weeding out of incumbents who are unpopular. Given the fact that most representatives are white males, lowering the rates of incumbent re-election would open up more spaces for women in office.

Finally, districts where multiple candidates are elected tend to experience more positive campaigning, which provide women with increased flexibility to run based on their qualifications. According to Representation 2020's report “Fair Elections; How Single-Member Districts Hold Women Back,” women will be provided with more room to focus on their successes and experiences once the zero-sum game of single-winner districts is changed to a positive-sum game. When it is clear that a candidate’s success does not come at the cost of all others’ (which is the case in single-winner districts), like-minded candidates may campaign together or offer aid to each other. Given that women are 75% more likely to be wary of negative campaigning than men, the implementation of a multi-winner district would alleviate the already increased stress that female candidates feel during the election cycle.

The effects of single-winner districts versus multi-winner districts can be further supported by the fact that women tend to be represented more in the latter. When examining the data collected by FairVote, it is clear that since 1976, women are typically elected in state legislative chambers that use multi-winner districts. Moreover, a shift from multi-winner to single-winner districts has often led to a drop in the representation of women.

In 1998, there was a 10 percentage point difference between the average state legislative chamber elected using single-winner and the average chamber elected using multi-winner districts. In 2012, women composed about 29% of state legislators in the average chamber elected using multi-winner districts, but only represented 23% of state legislators in the average chamber elected using all single-winner districts. It is apparent that, although the overall representation of women have increased over the 36-year period, multi-winner districts have always had more female legislators when compared to single-winner districts.

The North Carolina House of Representatives changed from a multi-winner to a single-winner system in 1986. Two years prior, 15.0% of the House was composed of women. However, after the shift, the number dropped to 13.3%. This 1.7% drop was a stark contrast to other states that were still using multi-winner districts during this time. In the Alaska House of Representatives, the number of women participating grew from 12.5% to 17.5% over the same time period. Moreover, the House in Idaho saw a growth in representation from 15.7% to 24.3% between 1984 and 1986 – a whopping 8.6 percentage point increase.

This pattern is also apparent in state senates. From 1984 to 2010, the representation of women in the Nevada State Senate did not drop below 20.0%. However, after changing from a multi-winner to a single-winner system in 2012, the number of women represented dropped 14.3 points, from 33.3% to 19.0%. During this time, Vermont, the last state that was still using multi-winner districts in its senate, kept its numbers steady (36.7%).

The numbers show that women are more likely to be represented in multi-winner electoral systems rather than single-winner. Given the fact thatmore than half of the state legislatures in this country were once elected through a multi-winner system, reversing back to this practice may bring us closer to achieving gender parity.

In addition, the Representation 2020 reportmentioned above also states that better results can be achieved by implementing multi-winner district elections along with a fair representation voting system – particularly ranked choice voting. It is important to note that fair representation, or the idea that voters should have representatives that are in proportion to their number,  is essential to negate the consequences of winner-take-all elections that may still occur within multi-winner districts. When citizens are given the choice to rank their preferred candidates, it is less likely that “vote-splitting” will occur. Furthermore, major parties will be able to actively compete in elections within every state, resulting in legislators that are truly representative to the demands of constituents.

The nature of our current political system calls for electoral reform. As women are less likely to be represented in single-winner systems, we must look toward multi-winner districts with fair voting as a key structural solution to representation. Although stereotypes and perceived biases may be contributing to the plateau of the number of female representatives, we must dig deeper to examine the way that leaders are chosen. If a multi-winner system with fair voting is implemented, we may see more voices in our government - a change that upholds the values of our democracy.

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