CfER Position Paper

Women and Proportional Representation



According to United Nations reports, the U.S. ranks 24th of 54 western democracies for women's representation in national legislatures.

U.S. women, over 50% of the population, are only:

11% of the U.S. House of Representatives;

9% of the U.S. Senate;

20% of the California state legislature.

Different electoral systems used in the same country produce significantly different results in the election of women. Research worldwide shows that the number one predictor of women's success in national legislative elections is the presence of proportional representation (PR) voting systems.

In Australia: PR multi-seat districts and U.S.-style single seat "winner take all" districts are used for electing different legislative bodies.

In Germany: A hybrid "mixed member" voting system of proportional multi-seat districts and "winner take all" districts is used for electing different legislative bodies.

The results? Three times more women legislators were elected in Australia and Germany by PR in the 1987-1993 elections!

Countries that use PR exclusively elect many times more women to their legislatures compared to countries that use "winner take all" exclusively.

Examples of PR countries leading the way:

Sweden 41% Denmark 33%

Finland 39% The Netherlands 29%

Norway 36% South Africa 25%



The 1996 U.N. Beijing Conference on Women approved a platform plank urging all governments to "review the differential impact of electoral systems on the political representation of women in elected bodies and consider, where appropriate, the adjustment or reform of those systems."

To implement the U.N. directive, we need election procedures which allow equal opportunity for women voters and candidates. These procedures are Multi-Seat Districts and Proportional Voting methods.


Three Proportional Voting methods are:

1) Cumulative Voting: Allows voters to cast more than one vote for their preferred candidate. In a five person race, the voter may put all votes on one candidate or disperse the votes in any way she chooses. According to law professor Lani Guinier, cumulative voting has been used successfully in the United States as a remedy in local voting rights cases and has resulted in women of all colors being elected.

2) The List System of Proportional Representation: The most widely used voting system in democracies -- gives women and ethnic minorities fair representation in national legislatures. Representatives are elected from multi-seat districts in proportion to the number of votes each party or slate receives. If there are 10 legislative seats and a party or slate receives 30% of the popular vote, they receive 30% - 3 - of the seats. Political parties and organizations have an incentive to place women and ethnic minorities on their respective lists to broaden their appeal. Research shows that women gain greater representation when the party list is open, allowing voters to select particular candidates rather than the entire list. South Africa chose the multi-seat list system rather than "winner take all" single seat districts as the foundation of its multiracial democracy because of its unique capacity to allow minority representation and majority rule.

3) Choice Voting: Allows voters to rank candidates in their order of preference, 1,2,3,4, etc. It includes what is called a transferable ballot, so that if a voter's first choice doesn't win, their vote transfers to their second choice, third choice, and so on. This keeps constituencies from splitting their vote among several competing candidates, or having to settle for the "lesser of two evils." Choice voting also reduces the number of votes needed to win a seat compared to "winner take all." This lower threshold opens up the races to women candidates and candidates representing racial or political minorities. Preference voting can be partisan or non-partisan, and is used in Ireland and Australia, in Cambridge, MA to elect the city council and school boards, and in New York City to elect community school boards. It has proven itself up to the challenge of electing women and ethnic minorities in fair and competitive elections without having to gerrymander district lines.


Implementation of any of these alternative voting systems at local, state and Congressional levels only requires revision of applicable local and state laws and one federal law. Congressman Mel Watt (D -NC) and 12 co-sponsors, including original sponsor Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (D-GA),

introduced HR1173 on March 17, 1999 to modify the 1967 federal law mandating single seat districts for the U.S. House so that states can elect their House delegations from multi-seat districts.


In the 1980s, more American women were elected to state legislatures in states that used multi-seat ("at-large") districts, or a mixed system of multi-seat and single seat districts. In the 1990s, African American women were more likely to be elected in multi-seat districts than in single seat ones.

But, in the 1960s to 1980s, most states that switched to single seat districts from multi-seat ones experienced a decline in women legislators relative to the national average. The major reasons for this difference are that women are more likely to run and voters are more likely to seek gender balance when there is more than one seat to fill.

Because PR expands options, PR systems give women additional leverage to force the major parties to support more women candidates. In 1994, a threat by women supporters of the major parties in Sweden to form a new women's party led to women winning 41% of seats because the major parties recruited more women candidates.

It is time for the 19th and 14th Amendments to finally give women equal rights in voting and election. Converting to some type of proportional representation will facilitate the process.


We recommend you read and discuss in your chapters:

Lift Every Voice, Lani Guinier, Simon & Shuster, 1998.

Proportional Representation—The Case for a Better Election System, Douglas Amy, Crescent

Street Press, 1997

Reflecting All of Us, Rob Richie and Steven Hill, Beacon Press, 1999

Real Choices, New Voices, Douglas Amy, Columbia University Press, 1993

Fairvote and Californians for Electoral Reform (CfER) can organize educational sessions. You can reach Fairvote and CfER by calling Betty Traynor at 415/558-8133 or Barbara Blong at 415/826-2322.

Chart of Women in Legislatures Around the World