One of the big headlines for the 2012 elections was the historic number of women elected to state and national offices. New Hampshire became the first state to elect an all women congressional delegation and a woman governor. The U.S. House of Representatives has 79 women and the Senate has reached a historic level with 20 women representing 18 states, with California and New Hampshire each having two women senators.
In addition to New Hampshire, four other states have governors that are women. Women also make up 24 percent of the more than 7,300 state legislators in the country. Most of these women represent the two major political parties, with most from the Democratic party. Republicans make up four of the five women governors.
While these accomplishments are notable, the number of women representatives at all levels of government is low considering women make up more than half the population. The United States currently ranks 96th in the world for the percentage of women in national government. Rwanda is the leader and the first to achieve a woman majority (63.8 percent in the lower house, 38.5 percent in the upper). In spite of the great strides made in the number of women in the U.S. Congress, our less than 20 percent representation lags behind the international average of 21 percent.
Statistics show that an increase in women representatives shows a greater focus on policies that affect everyone. Inevitably, “women” issues such as reproductive rights and child care are put to the forefront when more women are elected. However, more legislation is introduced regarding economic policy, education, civil rights and the environment when women have a larger presence. There is also a substantial improvement in economic performance in countries where women hold key national leadership positions.
In America, it’s not for a lack of trying. Many organizations have been working tirelessly for years to recruit, train and elect more women. Emily’s List, whose focus is electing pro-choice women to congress and governor, has a Political Opportunity Program which provides guides and training to help qualified Democratic women run for office. The Susan B. Anthony List’s mission is to support anti-choice women, though they focus their training more on advocacy than on candidate training. These organizations, and others like the National Organization for Women and the Feminist Majority, are also working hard to fund women candidates.
The problem lies within our electoral system.
The key difference between our country and the rest of the world can be found in the use of proportional representation, also called “fair representation,” electoral systems. These countries use multi-seat, also known as multi-member, districts. They are made up of “super districts” which have several representatives. If a district has five seats, the votes are allocated based on a percentages. The five candidates receiving the most votes would be the representatives.
The countries using proportional representation elect a higher number of women and minority candidates. They also have multi-party representation. Many of these groups received votes well under the fifty percent mark, allowing for a steady level of fair representation in their government. The political parties also make a conscious effort to include women candidates. Many require a certain percentage of the candidates to be women – some requiring at least half. Competition also increases the ranks. If a party seems to be consistently securing seats with women candidates, it can spur others to recruit more for their party.
We used to do this in United States.
Prior to 1842, the majority of states were using at-large elections to elect their House members. At the time it was believed that such a system would effectively translate the state’s representation to the national level, and balance the power in both chambers for small states. Of course in the 19th century, representation meant white males.
As minority parties (and, later, candidates) began to enter the system, more states abandoned multi-member districts and at-large Congressional elections for the House to marginalize their effectiveness. By the early sixties, most states had converted to smaller single-member districts, with the 88th Congress (1962-1963) being the last to have a large number of House members elected from MMD districts. In 1967, spurred by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and fearing an increase in minority candidates, Congress passed the Uniform Congressional District Act, which required the use of single-member districts in all states with two or more representatives.
That law remains in effect today.
Representation 2020 is a project of FairVote dedicated to raising awareness of the underrepresentation of women in government and to increase their numbers. August 18, 2020 will be the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. They estimate that at the current rate of progress, it will take 500 years to reach gender parity in government. They are trying to speed up the process by focusing on some key reforms.
The organization is focusing on leadership in both parties to focus on recruiting and nominating more women candidates. They also are promoting “gender conscious” legislative processes that are not biased against women. This includes increasing the number of Women Caucuses in the state legislatures and appointing more women to leadership positions on committees. Understanding that even in government, women still bear the bulk of the childcare responsibilities, the group also wants an improvement in procedural practices that would benefit legislators with children, such as limiting floor debates and votes to certain times of the day.
They are also focusing on the key element to increase representation – multi-member districts. Currently, ten states still use multi-member districts, at least in part, and it is no coincidence that these also represent the states with the highest number of women legislators. Vermont and Colorado rank the highest, with women making up 41 percent of the legislature.
This isn’t about gerrymandering, which is a political tool used to create maps which group like minded voters together. It’s the simple fact that in America we limit our choices to just one or two candidates, with the winner requiring more than 50 percent of the vote. While maps would need to be redrawn, we would have the same number of representatives. However, more candidates could participate, more people would be voting, and votes would have more of an impact because they would be allocated on a percentage.
There is no Constitutional prohibition to having multi-member districts. While it mandates districts, it does not mandate how those districts are configured. The only prohibition to doing so on a national level is the Uniform Congressional District Act of 1967. All that is needed is the majority old, white, male Congress to repeal the law to make it happen.
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