To increase women in US politics, upgrade the electoral process

To increase women in US politics, upgrade the electoral process
© Greg Nash

America has its first female vice president and a record number of women in Congress. After the 2020 elections, there are now 118 women in the U.S. House, the most ever, and 24 serving in the U.S. Senate. That’s just one off the all-time mark.

While all progress on the road to gender equity is worth celebrating, women still only make up just 27 percent of the House, far below their total population share. And while the pace of change has quickened — just 96 women served in Congress a decade ago — most of us remain unlikely to see gender balance in politics in our lifetimes.

That’s not fast enough. And it’s another good reason to support the bold, transformational democracy reforms within the Fair Representation Act, which will be reintroduced in Congress in the coming weeks and would ensure a more equitable and proportional membership in our leading legislative bodies.

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The Fair Representation Act would modernize the U.S. House and introduce a voting method proven worldwide to increase the numbers of women in the corridors of power: Multi-winner ranked choice voting. 

Here’s how it works: Instead of our current system of 435 easily gerrymandered, single-member districts, we’d create slightly larger districts represented by three, four or five members and elected with ranked choice voting. The bigger districts defang the gerrymander. Studies show that choosing several winners with ranked choice voting encourages coalition building, more positive campaigns, and incentivizes parties to run balanced slates of candidates. 

The evidence is clear. While America has made some gains in the number of women holding office, other countries have made them faster. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the United States ranked 48th among nations for women’s representation in 2001. According to their most recent study? We’re tied with Mali at 67th and just ahead of Kazakhstan and Afghanistan which rank 68th. 

The nations that are electing the most women to office, and at the speediest rates, have adopted electoral systems that create more opportunities for women to run, to win and to lead. Most of them have embraced proportional systems and allowed voters to choose from a broader field.

Just look at Rwanda, which leads the way in the Inter-Parliamentary Union study with a whopping 61 percent female in their version of the U.S. House. In Bolivia, women make up 53 percent of the lower house. Australia’s upper house has soared past 50 percent women’s representation. Three different countries, on three different continents, but they share a similar electoral system — and achieve levels of gender parity that the United States may not see for generations. 

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The simple truth is that few established democracies rely on our antiquated winner-takes-all system with one representative per district. The 10 U.S. states that use multi-winner districts for state legislatures also have some of the highest levels of elected female officials, as do cities that use this approach as well. 

Systems matter. Ours has never worked for women. With proportional outcomes and a wider variety of candidates on the ballot, the Fair Representation Act will create more opportunities for women, but also for people of color, urban Republicans, rural Democrats and Independents. It breaks our polarized binary of safe red and blue districts and opens the door to a new kind of politics.

Women have now had the vote for a century, and it has taken that long to inch past a quarter of the seats. We need to do more. There’s no time to waste. Most of the countries that outrank the U.S. in the Inter-Parliamentary Union study have taken positive, forceful steps to remake their electoral systems to create genuine parity. After all, when the nation decided to mandate equity in college sports, for example, we didn’t tell women to change their strategies for making the team. We passed Title IX and created systems and rules that ensured equal opportunity. 

The violent assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6 emphasized what a crucial moment this is in our nation’s democracy. The Fair Representation Act would help ease our polarized, dysfunctional politics, take on gerrymandering and change the incentive structure in Washington. It could be the Title IX for Congress that we so desperately need if America is to stop trailing our allies and to lead on issues of equality once more. 

Cynthia Richie Terrell is the founder and director of RepresentWomen, a nonpartisan organization working on data-driven systems strategies to advance women’s representation and leadership in politics.