Women and RCV: Run, Reform, Represent

As we celebrate Women’s History Month in 2018, Voter Choice Massachusetts would like to recognize the women, especially in our state, who are stepping up to serve their communities by running for public office. Thanks to the initiative of these individual leaders and those who have supported them, women have made steady progress in representation in the United States Congress, averaging about 1-2% increase in representation with every election since obtaining the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

The Remaining Gap

There is still a tremendous gender gap in representation in Massachusetts, the United States, and the world. Massachusetts ranks 13th in the nation in female representation with women holding only 26% of our state legislative seats. The United States ranks 99th in the world, with women occupying just 19% of seats in Congress. Globally, women hold only 23% of seats in national legislative bodies.


Electoral reform and exceptional gains

Gains for women have come from individual commitments and collective struggles. They are a product of cultural change and political craft and will. They are both supported by and in turn reinforce economic advancements that improve the lives of women and provide a more equal footing from which to pursue public service. A game changer that is often forgotten is the important role that electoral reforms can play in advancing women’s representation.

Women benefit when their efforts towards equality in government face fewer structural obstacles. The Nordic countries, which have consistently been world leaders in women’s representation, have proportional forms of democratic government that have proven adept at accommodating and reinforcing the gains women have worked for in society and the workplace. In recent years, four nations in Latin America and Rwanda in Africa have lept to the top ten list of nations in women’s representation by responding to their nation’s desire for equality with aggressive structural reforms to achieve parity.

As Soo Oh and Sarah Kliff of Vox noted:

Take, for example, Bolivia. Twenty years ago, it ranked 98th for women’s representation, and as recently as 2008, only 16.9 percent of its representatives were women. But in 2009, the country passed a constitutional amendment requiring equal gender representation in government. The Bolivian legislature is now 53.1 percent women and ranks second in the world.


Voters in New Zealand made a major change to their electoral system in 1996, going from plurality voting like we have in the United States to Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), like Germany. In the first election using MMP, women’s representation soared 50% from about 20% of parliament to about 30%, where it has remained at or above consistently, hitting a high of 38.4% in November 2017 — not ideal, but putting New Zealand at about 35th in the world. Personifying the contrast with the United States, which has yet to elect a female head of state, New Zealand’s Prime Minister today, Jacinda Ardern, is pregnant and will give birth this summer while serving in office. She will be the second leader of a democratic nation to do this in modern times — before her was Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim Majority nation.


The lesson here is that the gender gap in government can be closed where there is the political will. Removing structural impediments can allow cultural progress to translate more directly into fair representation in government, and creating systemic incentives can achieve political equality in representation even faster.

Ranked Choice Voting and women’s representation

RepresentWomen has recently published important studies of US elections, including simple policy recommendations that can further empower the rising wave of women committed to serving in government and remove hindrances that unfairly slow their advance. Ranked Choice Voting is proving to be one of the powerful reforms that can facilitate women running for office and winning elections.


Here’s some of the data compiled by RepresentWomen as of March 2018:

  • In cities that adopted Ranked Choice Voting, women’s share of council seats immediately before RCV’s adoption was 27%, and in following elections has averaged 50%.
  • This 50% average share of seats for women on city councils in RCV cities is double the average of 25% in the 100 most populous cities in the US.
  • 44% of cities with RCV have women mayors versus the average of 20% in the 100 most populous cities in the US, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.



The Ranked Choice Voting laws passed by these cities included no special quotas or targets for women’s representation, but they had a profound impact by removing traditional de facto barriers to women within our outdated plurality electoral system. The research points to the following effects as likely being responsible for much of the improvement.

Women prefer civil campaigns

Studies show Ranked Choice Voting increases the civility of campaigns and reduces negative attacks. Rather than engage in mudslinging, candidates in RCV elections reach out to supporters of their opponents to earn second or third choice spots on those voters' ballots. Women candidates often prefer running on a positive message. Such civil campaigns reward grassroots organizing over expensive negative advertising, putting victory within reach of less well-funded candidates.

Vote splitting eliminated

By giving voters backup choices, Ranked Choice Voting allows everyone to support their true favorite candidate without throwing their vote away. This also means candidates can run without concern about unfairly undermining, or conversely being harmed by, another candidate with similar views or a shared base of support. Multiple women candidates can run under RCV without hurting each other's chances, and voters are freed to support women candidates without fear they will split the vote.

Benefits of consolidating elections

Ranked Choice Voting allows cities to replace primary elections, including preliminaries, with a single RCV general election. This saves cities money and also:

  • Yields a shorter campaign season that’s both less expensive and allows women to campaign without jeopardizing work and family commitments. This is very important in local elections because they are the first rungs of the electoral ladder, where candidates can begin building their political resume and career.
  • Addresses participation problems that plague primary elections. Turnout tends to be very low and the voters tend to be disproportionately older, whiter, and wealthier when compared with the electorate as a whole. Cities with RCV are experiencing more representative outcomes for women and people of color.

2017 Minneapolis Mayoral candidate Nekima Levy Pounds summarized it very well when she said:

“Ranked choice voting allowed voters to take a chance on a candidate like me, on other candidates like me, to say listen, I will vote for this person, because my values are aligned with what this person is saying and what they will do, but if they do not prevail in the race then I can vote the next best person in the race.”


Closing the gap

Women in the US are organizing around running for office and leading a charge to close the gender gap in government. The Women’s Marches and #MeToo movements are coinciding with record numbers of women running for office. Voter Choice Massachusetts volunteers are proud to be part of the movement, in the words of RepresentWomen, to achieve

“fair representation for women and men across the political, racial, and geographic spectrum, so that our daughters and their daughters can engage with our democracy as equals.”

The importance of this work is paraphrased here from RW’s Cynthia Terrell:

“The great legislative achievements that have institutionalized civil rights progress, including Women’s Suffrage, the Voting Rights Act, Title IX, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, created lasting change by reforming antiquated rules and systems to eliminate barriers faced by groups of people.”

The data suggests that RCV continues in this proud tradition -  a simple, common sense, upgrade to our electoral system that fosters women’s representation by correcting imperfections in how we practice democracy which are holding us back from where we could and should be.