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National NOW Times >> Winter, 2001 >> Article

NOW Advocates for More Diverse Representation in U.S. Government

by Lisa Bhungalia

Although women make up half of the U.S. population, their presence at all levels of government lies far below the half-way mark. After the Nov. 7 elections, women still make up fewer than one in seven members of the House of Representatives and only twelve women sit in the U.S. Senate (possibly 13, if Maria Cantwell's win over incumbent Washington state Senator Slade Gorton is certified). People of color are also poorly represented in Congress and state legislatures. In an effort to create a government that more closely represents the diversity of its voters, NOW's National Board members agreed last year to endorse a move to proportional representation throughout the U.S.

"We are tired of a government that purports to represent all of the people, but resembles a corporate boardroom," says NOW President Patricia Ireland. "That is why NOW is initiating an education campaign on reforming our winner-take-all voting system in order to elect more feminist candidates to office."

Under the current system for congressional elections in the U.S., all candidates run for a single legislative seat and win by obtaining the most votes. For example, in a two-person race, a candidate must win by obtaining at least 50 percent plus one vote. The population that voted for the losing candidate—which may collect up to 49 percent minus one vote—is left without any representation.

Proportional representation is an alternative electoral system that offers more voting power to minority populations and more opportunity to elect women and people of color. It is based upon the principle that any group of like-minded voters should win legislative seats in proportion to its share of the popular vote, rather than see its votes essentially go to waste, as they do in a winner-take-all system. The recent controversy in the presidential election suggests that a proportional allocation of each state's votes could benefit the Electoral College, in addition to city, state and congressional races.

In the book "Reflecting All of Us: The Case for Proportional Representation," Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier writes: "What America needs is a system that disperses power more broadly. Ultimately, proportional and semi-proportional systems reflect ideas of cooperation and rotation—the importance of public access to power . . . It is about transforming how power itself is exercised and shared."

Instituting proportional representation in the U.S. would mean re-drawing congressional districts to construct fewer, but much larger, districts. This would make several seats available in each district, rather than just one. Under one variation of proportional representation, voters would then cast a number of votes equal to the number of seats available and could be allowed to cast all of their votes for one candidate or distribute them among candidates as they see fit.

Feminists and other voting reform advocates believe that an increase in available seats would encourage more women and people of color to run for office and give their supporters a greater incentive to form coalitions that could truly affect the outcome of elections. Experts also predict that voting rates would go up among women and people of color as they see their own power grow.

This power is not hypothetical—it can be seen around the globe. In democracies that use proportional representation exclusively, a much higher share of women are elected to office then in countries that use only the winner-take-all approach. Sweden, Finland and Denmark, all countries that have implemented this system, have legislatures made-up of more than a third women.

Sweden implemented proportional representation in its 1998 national election and currently fills 43 percent of its national legislature with women. In 1990, Germany elected half of its parliament using the winner-take-all system, which resulted in women winning 12 percent of the seats, and the other half by proportional representation, where women won nearly 29 percent of the seats.

Women's representation in these countries is also enhanced by Labor, Social Democrat and Green Party quotas for the number of female candidates run on their tickets.

In 2001 nearly every jurisdiction in the U.S. will re-draw its district lines, making NOW's efforts both timely and urgent. "As political pundits again discuss the depressing voter turn-out in the U.S., a system that can empower people must be seriously considered," says Ireland. "And as feminists analyze our meager gains in the House and Senate, we believe that proportional representation may be the best way to build a government that is responsive to our issues."

To learn how you can help endorse proportional representation and educate others, contact the NOW Action Center at 202-628-8669, ext. 121, and visit the web site for the Center for Voting and Democracy at www.fairvote.org or call 301-270-4616.

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