Locally, Voting Systems Affect Women's Representation

By Emily Agliano on November 03, 2015

Women are incredibly underrepresented at all levels of government and cities are no exception. Representation2020 analyzed America’s 100 largest cities and ranked them in order of percentage of women’s representation on their city councils. A mere 16 out of the 100 largest cities have 50 percent or higher women’s representation on their city councils. Only 14 of these cities have a female mayor.

Serving in elected office on the local level is not only important because it heavily impacts the lives of those in the community, but also because it is often a launching pad to state and national positions. Structural barriers make it hard for women to run, win, serve, and lead at the city level.

In ranking America’s 100 largest cities by the percentage of women’s representation on their city councils, Representation2020 noted whether the city elected some or all of its seats at-large. An at-large seat is one where a candidate is elected by a whole city rather than just a specific ward or district within that city.

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Our 2015 report shows that of the 100 largest cities, the top ten for women’s representation elect some of their seats at-large. Three of those top ten, (Columbus, Ohio; Chula Vista, California; Hialeah, Florida) elect all of their city council seats at-large. In the ten worst cities for women’s representation, eight of the ten do not elect any of their seats at-large. Of the two that have at-large seats, neither elects all of their seats at-large. 

Representation2020’s research shows that when comparing cities that elect all of their seats at-large to cities that use a single winner district system, all at-large cities elect women at higher rates than cities that elect councilmembers using single winner districts. The average percentage of women in single winner seat-only councils is a mere 28.2%. The average percent of women on at-large only city councils is more than ten points higher at 41.3%. This drastic increase shows that women do better in at-large seats than in single winner systems on the city level. 

Unfortunately, only 14 of the 100 largest cities elect all of their seats at-large. In contrast, 52 of these cities elect all of their seats using a single winner system. The remaining 34 cities use a mixture of single winner and at large seats. Our research showed that these mixed seat systems are no better or worse for women—women are not necessarily more likely to be elected to the at-large seats in the mixed seat cities. However, the data does show that women do better in cities with only at-large seats as opposed to cities with only single winner districts. 

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The cities bottoming out the women’s representation list represent various regions of the country with different histories, partisan leanings, and more. These cities need structural solutions to the obstacles facing women. If the cities at the bottom of the list were to adopt ranked choice voting and at-large elections, the chances of women being elected in their city councils would likely increase. Ranked choice voting, where voters rank their candidates in order of preference, when paired with at-large districts, helps women win because combining these two creates a fair representation system that incentivises grassroots organizing and mitigates the impact of money on the electoral process. Fair representation systems allow outsiders to run more effectively and creates a better chance for outsiders to be elected. Minneapolis (17), Oakland (11), San Francisco (19), and St. Paul (84) all use ranked choice voting for their city council elections. 

The trend is clear—more women are elected when a city elects all seats at-large. Cities are the perfect place to exercise American federalism and utilize our laboratories of democracy, as a growing number of cities around the country have already done. Ranked choice voting and at-large seats have a positive impact for women and may make residents excited about democracy once again.



 
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