The Ripple Effect of Multi-Member Districts on Women’s Representation

By Shayna Solomon on August 27, 2015

Women hold 24.3 percent of seats in state legislatures throughout the United States. This percentage is barely up from 24.2 percent of seats before the 2014 election, inching state legislatures only slightly closer to gender parity. If we continue at this snail’s pace, we will wait centuries to reach gender parity. However, there are simple, tried, tested and proven effective structural changes that American state legislatures can adopt to speed up progress to gender parity: multi-winner districts.     

Ten states currently use a mix of single-winner, two-winner, and multi-winner districts to elect the state legislature. The result: more women are elected to state legislatures in these states. The differences are simple: i

  • in a single-winner district, each district elects one representative;
  • in a two-winner district, each district elects two representatives; 
  • in a multi-member district, each district elects three or more representatives.

The consequences for women’s representation are profound. Compared to the national average of 24.3% of seats in state legislatures held by women, an average of 28.9% of seats are held by women in multi-winner districts and 27.6% of seats in two-winner districts.    

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The benefits of multi-winner systems don’t stop there. On average, the percentage of the population represented by at least one woman increases dramatically with the use of multi-winner districts. In the ten states that have some two- or multi-winner districts, 40.6% of the population is represented by at least one female representative. Three-quarters (74.9%) of the population living in multi-winner districts across the U.S. are represented by at least one female state legislator. Just under half (48.1%) of the population living in two-winner districts are represented by at least one woman. However, for the population living in single-winner districts in the ten states using some multi-winner districts in the state legislatures, less than a quarter (24.4%) are represented by a woman. 

Multi-Member Districts Lead to Better Representation

Multi-winner districts ensure that more citizens have descriptive representation and are represented by people with a more diverse spectrum of opinions and experiences. New research shows that having more women involved in the U.S. Senate motivates more women to be involved with and engaged in politics--it is likely that having more women in the state legislature has similar effects.

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The effects of multi-winner districts are mirrored on a state scale. Maryland, for example, uses a mix of all three types of districts in its House of Delegates. Of the 141 seats in the House of Delegates, 34.0% are held by women. The percentage of women drops as fewer delegates are elected per district.  In multi-winner districts, 35.5% of seats are held by women. In two-winner districts, 33.3% of seats are held by women; in single-winner districts, only 29.2% of seats are held by women.

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Changing the structure of our electoral system is an important first step to reaching gender parity in elected office. The several states using multi-winner districts are reaping the benefits in their state houses and for their citizens. 

All across the U.S., states could switch from single-winner districts to multi-winner districts in their state legislature and improve the representation of women in their state. However, switching to multi-winner districts is just a launch point. Gender parity would come much sooner if multi-winner districts were paired with ranked choice voting

More steps to reaching gender parity and increasing the number of women at all levels of government are available in our Representation 2020 State of Women’s Representation report, which will be released shortly.      

 


 
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