OTI Online
Fall 1997

United States: Ain't I a Voter?
by Wilma Rule and Stephen Hill

 

More than 75 years ago, the Nineteenth Amendment gave American women the right to vote. Three quarters of a century later, women remain - by far - the most underrepresented "minority" group in the United States. Women are actually the majority, comprising more than 50 percent of the population, yet they make up only 12 percent of the U.S. House of Representatives and 9 percent of the U.S. Senate, hi state legislatures, women average one out of every five legislators, with some states as low as 4 per- cent. According to United Nations reports, the United States ranks twenty-fourth of 54 western democracies in terms of women's representation in national legislatures.

Something is woefully wrong. The Year of the Woman has come and gone, and women are only marginally closer to a goal of political equality. It is an outrage of scandalous proportions, yet it is rarely discussed at American dinner tables, nor is it reported on the nightly news or analyzed on editorial pages. No gavels pound to convene presidential commissions or emergency hearings of a Senate judiciary committee. What, if anything, can be done?

The Nature of the Problem The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits gender discrimination and sexual harassment, but women are inadequately represented in our legislative bodies and scant attention has been given to understanding why. Ironically, even within racial minority groups, the differences in representation between women and men are enormous.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act - which was passed to lessen barriers preventing racial minorities from being elected to serve as lawmakers - has scarcely resolved the under representation of women of color, though it has been successful in helping to elect more men of color. In fact, three scholars - R. Darcy, Charles Hadley and Jason Kirksey - have demonstrated that the under representation of African-Americans is largely an under representation of black women. African-American women have only one third the representation of black men, who are actually over represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by 11 percent, in light of their share of the U.S. population. The story is the same for Latina women: In the U.S. House of Representatives, Latina women are underrepresented by 75 percent, but Latino men lack about 14 percent of the representation one would expect, given their share of the population. Asian women have only 27 percent of the representation of Asian men; white women only have 10 percent the representation of white men. White men, of course, win the Grossly Over represented Award, with their 40 percent of the population hogging 78 percent of the representation in the U.S. House and 90 percent in the U.S. Senate.

The story is similar in state legislatures. In the 50 state senates - prestigious legislative seats that are stepping-stones to Congress - Latino men outnumber Latina women 5 to 1; African American men outnumber African-American women 4.5 to 1; and white men outnumber white women by 5 to 1, for a total average ratio of 4.8 men to every woman.

What's at Stake? Electing more women to legislatures is not merely a matter of fairness, wider representation and affirmative action. Practically speaking, the presence of women in legislatures makes a qualitative and quantitative difference in the types of legislation proposed and passed into law. hi a study comparing legislation in major democracies, Dr. Arend Lijphart, professor of political science and past president of the American Political Science Association, found that countries with proportional-representation voting systems - which generally elect a much higher percentage of women - have enacted more laws that benefit women and children than do such countries as the United States, which use winner-take-all voting systems. [See "A Guide for Representations," on page 19, for a look at different voting systems.] In the United States, although congresswomen are outnumbered by men 9 to 1, they have been successful in gaining legislation overlooked by their male colleagues, including gender equity in education, child-support legislation and laws to prevent sexual harassment and violence against women. It was women in Congress who ensured that the offensive behavior of former U.S. Senators Bob Packwood and Brock Adams was not swept under the good-ol'-boy carpet.

Something tangible and significant is at stake in the gross under representation of women, yet few seem to understand why the inequity persists. Conventional wisdom holds that, regrettably, this circumstance is caused by intractable cultural sexism. While discriminatory attitudes certainly play a large role, their existence cannot explain why two voting systems used in a country produce significantly different results in the election of women, hi Germany, Italy and New Zealand, both proportional representation and U.S. style winner-take-all voting systems are used side by side for electing national legislative bodies. From 1987 to 1996, the results in the proportional balloting compared with winner-take-all are consistent and revealing: hi these countries, three times more women legislators were elected by proportional voting.

Furthermore, countries that use proportional representation exclusively elect many more women to their legislatures compared with countries that use winner-take-all balloting exclusively, with countries such as Sweden (41% of their lawmakers are women), Finland (39%), Norway (36%), Denmark (33%), the Netherlands (29%) and South Africa (25%) leading the way. Research shows that the number-one predictor of women's success in national legislative elections - when tested with other political and socioeconomic variables - is the presence of proportional-representation voting systems. Such comparative studies reveal that the U.S.-style winner-take-all voting system is a great obstacle to the election of female candidates.

In addition, scholars documented in the 1980s that more American women were elected to state legislatures in those states using multiseat districts (also known as at-large elections), or a mixed system of multiseat and single-seat districts. In the early 1990s it was further documented that African-American women were more likely to be elected in multiseat districts than in single seat ones, as were white women. Although local-level research is sparse, the generalization seems to apply there as well. Prom the 1960s to the 1980s, most states that switched to single-seat districts from multiseat ones experienced a decline in women legislators relative to the national average.

What this adds up to is compelling evidence that single-seat winner-take-all legislative districts present a significant electoral barrier to women of all races. A woman candidate has to be inoffensive enough to appeal to more than 50 percent of the voting public, and then even a small number of discriminatory voters refusing to give their single vote to a woman can deny female candidates the margin they need for election in a winner-take-all district. What's more, these single-seat districts have been the primary voting-rights remedy used to correct for racial under representation by drawing the districts in a way that makes a minority group a majority within that district. No wonder then, that women of color are underrepresented compared with their male counterparts; voting-rights remedies have relied on winner-take-all district elections that favor men of color over women. In other words, the rules of the game are stacked against the representation of women of all races.

Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back The 1995 United Nations 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." Knowing what we know today, a blue-ribbon presidential commission or Senate judiciary committee considering the stark under representation of women in the United States would have no choice but to find winner-take-all single-seat districts discriminatory against women. To implement the UN. resolution, election procedures would be needed that allow equal opportunity for women voters and candidates, as well as male minority voters and candidates. Surveying the country and the world, it is rather obvious that there would be little choice but to recommend multiseat districts and proportional voting methods for electing our representatives.

Since her rejection as the Clinton administration's nominee to head the civil-rights division of the Justice Department, law professor Lani Guinier has used the national spotlight to draw attention to the profound crisis of representation in the United States, not only for people of color but for most Americans. Guinier, along with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Voting and Democracy, proposed a cumulative voting plan to elect North Carolina's congressional delegation after the U.S. Supreme Court declared two majority-minority districts unconstitutional. Cumulative voting has been used successfully in the United States as a remedy in various local voting rights cases, and it has resulted in women of all colors, as well as men of color, being elected. It is currently in use in more than 200 localities, including Peoria, Illinois; Alamogordo, New Mexico; and several counties in Alabama, Texas and South Dakota.

The list system - the most widely used proportional voting system - gives women and ethnic and racial minorities fair representation in national, regional and local legislatures. Representatives are elected from multiseat districts in proportion to the number of votes each political party receives. If there are ten legislative seats in one district and a party receives 40 percent of the popular vote, that party gets 40 percent - four - of the seats, 20 percent wins two seats, and so on.

The example of South Africa is instructive. Compared with the United States, the black-and-white racial demographics of South Africa are almost exactly reversed. The challenge of South Africa's black majority was to share power with its white minority and other ethnic and racial minorities in a way that was fair and equitable. South Africa opted for the list form of proportional representation rather than a winner-take-all system like that in the United States, with its hodgepodge of gerrymandered districts. In South Africa's first election, the white minority and other minorities won their fair share of seats without a single gerrymandered district, and women won 25 percent of seats. Moreover, the main parties reached out to voters of all races by running multiracial slates of candidates, because political parties and organizations have an incentive to place women and minorities on their slates to broaden their appeal. Rather than polarizing the nation along racial lines, the proportional election helped unify a new and fragile democracy. No wonder proportional voting systems are used by most established democracies in the world today.

Toward the Future Implementation of these alternative voting systems at local, state and federal levels does not require any revision to the U.S. Constitution. Changes in applicable law will do. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (D.-Georgia) will soon introduce a bill to modify a 1967 federal law mandating single-seat districts for the U.S. House. The modification will allow states to elect their House delegations from multiseat districts via proportional representation. If passed, McKinney's bill will permit states to give representation to racial minorities without having to resort to the pitfalls of race-conscious districting, which has been declared unconstitutional by recent Supreme Court rulings. At the same time, the bill will give women electoral opportunities unknown to them under winner-take-all elections.

It is easy to envision that 75 years hence, without fundamental change to our current voting system, women in the United States will still languish on the political margins. It is time to fulfill the promise of both the Nineteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, giving equal rights for voting and election to women of all races. The evidence strongly suggests that the only way to do this, and be fair to majority and minority constituencies of all races, genders and political association, is to abandon the archaic 200-year-old winner-take-all voting system and convert to some variant of the more modern proportional-representation voting system.


Wilma Rule is adjunct professor at the University of Nevada-Reno and coeditor with Dr. Joseph F. Zimmerman of United States Electoral Systems: Their Impact on Women and Minorities and Electoral Systems in Comparative Perspective: Their Impact on Women and Minorities. Stephen Hill is a journalist (http://www.igc.org I en VISION) and the West Coast director of the Center for Voting and Democracy.


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