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Will ranked choice voting make 2022 the last ‘Year of the Woman’?

AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File
FILE – Brochures are displayed at the Alaska Division of Elections office on Jan. 21, 2022 in Anchorage, Alaska, detailing changes to elections this year. Alaska’s races will unfold in the overhauled ranked-choice system. The system had its inaugural election this summer when Democrat Mary Peltola made history by becoming the first Alaska Native to serve in the House and the first woman to win Alaska’s sole congressional seat.

This November, 25 women — 16 Democrats and nine Republicans — are on the ballot for governor; a new record in U.S. history. While this is a milestone worth celebrating, at this rate, it’s going to take more than 30 years of record breaking to achieve gender balance in American politics.

That’s because despite recent milestones, the U.S. is moving at a slower pace towards gender parity in the federal government compared to the international scale. The United States now ranks 70 along with Lithuania out of 193 countries for the representation of women. More importantly, the U.S. ranks 37th among democratic allies in the 38 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations. But even our peak of ranking 46th in 2000 says a lot about how far we still have to go.

The outlook is mirrored in RepresentWomen’s Gender Parity Index, which we created to study representation of women across federal, state, and local offices in all 50 states. We found that in spite of women making up half of the U.S. population, women still make up less than one-third of all elected officeholders. According to the Center for Women in Politics, 30 percent of all women in elected office are women of color.

We gave each state a letter grade system based on how close it came to true gender parity — a 50-50 representation from both men and women elected leaders. Although New Mexico and Maine come the closest, no state received an A grade; 60 percent of states got Ds. In fact, “D” has been the most common grade every single year since the report was first released in 2013. This is not a streak to be proud of.

Our research shows that our current voting system, developed over 250 years ago, has not evolved with social progress. The popular single-winner plurality approach fails to give voters the power to make choices that represent their needs and values. And it has delayed progress toward gender balance in politics.

To swing the door open for more women to run and win, we need ranked choice voting.

We saw firsthand how it can propel democracy and bring in new leadership in Alaska, which held its first state-wide ranked choice vote in August. Mary Peltola won a special election to complete late Rep. Don Young’s term with 51 percent of the vote, becoming the first Native Alaskan in Congress. In November, Alaskans will rank candidates in dozens of state legislative campaigns, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) race for reelection and a repeat congressional contest with Sarah Palin, Peltola, Nick Begich and a fourth finalist.

Beyond Alaska, we found:

  • Of 156 local-level ranked choice elections that had three or more candidates running, 34 percent of all candidates were women, and 35 percent of these women won. Of the women who won, 38 percent were women of color. 
  • Overall, women won 48 percent of the individual seats up for election. 
  • At the start of 2020, half of all city council members and nearly half of all mayors elected in cities that used ranked choice voting were women.

Ranked choice voting yields more representative outcomes, because ranked choice voting incentivizes positive campaigning, eliminates vote splitting, rewards issue-focused campaigns, and costs less for candidates and election offices.

This year, ranked choice voting stands to be adopted in 10 local and state elections, joining more than 50 cities and 2 states that have already reformed their election to improve representation and democracy on a systemic level.

This November, as we celebrate new milestones for women in leadership and see yet another “Year of the Woman” headline, let’s remember that most of the country is still using outdated voting systems that get us a D grade in equal representation. In order to achieve true gender balance, we must improve elections to ensure more women can run, win, serve and lead. It starts with ranked choice voting. 

Cynthia Richie Terrell is founder and executive director of RepresentWomen, a nonpartisan organization advancing reforms that ensure more women can run, win, serve, and lead.

Tags Alaska Don Young election reform Gender balance gender parity Lisa Murkowski Mary Peltola Nick Begich Ranked choice voting Sarah Palin voting laws Women in politics Year of the Woman

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