National NOW Times >> Winter, 2001 >> Article
Advocates for More Diverse Representation in U.S.
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
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."
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.
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