Making A Place on the Ballot for Women

by Krist Novoselic (January 15, 2015)

This article will look at electoral rules that best accommodate how a gender component, within an association’s nominating rules, could guarantee a woman a place on the general election ballot.

There is a gender gap in our politics. According to the Center for American Women andPolitics, a total of 104 women will serve in the 114th Congress. Women make up 24.2 percent of the state legislatures. We have seen a steady rise in holding office since 1917, the year the first woman was elected to the US House. Notwithstanding, women still only hold 19 percent of the seats in Congress.

My perspective is rooted in the book "It Still Takes a Candidate: Why women don’t run for office" by Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox. These scholars examine the gender gap to find women are less likely than men to consider running for office, run for office and express an interest to run for office in the future (p. 164). To determine the sources of this gap, scholars examine potential barriers to participation. One obstacle is traditional gender socialization. This socialization assigns gender roles to the sexes where the female assumes the place of homemaker. This role can follow a woman candidate into office (p. 76). The demands on a candidate are also examined — there is a loss of privacy and the negative nature of campaigns (p. 137). Another hurdle is how electoral gatekeepers from the political parties, and other candidate support organizations, tend to recruit more men than women (p. 96). While the effects of socialization and inherent negatives in the current electoral system are formidable, groups have been recruiting women candidates.

Women’s organizations do play an important role in mitigating the gender gap in political recruitment (p. 105). For example, the Woman’s Campaign Forum, EMILY’s List, the White House Project and Emerge America actively recruit women to run for office. Lawless and Fox add that contact from a group can make a woman 34 percent more likely to be a candidate. These groups focus on encouraging female candidates, however, what if political parties themselves made an effort to recruit more women?

The Rules Matter

Political parties are the obvious portals for the emergence of candidates. Increasing participation for women in politics can result from simple party by-law changes. Parties here and abroad have rules with gender components. For example, the Washington State Democratic party by-laws call for the election of an exclusive state committeeman and state committeewoman from county and legislative organizations to the Central Committee (Article VIII, B). The National Republican Congressional Committee has instituted its “Project GROW” (Growing Republican Opportunities for Women) to, “empower women, engage female leaders on and off the ballot in the 2014 cycle and beyond’’ (NRCC). In Germany, where half the national legislature is elected at-large from closed party-list ballots, some parties have adopted gender components for their candidate nominations. Lawless and Fox tell us that compared to most election rules used in the United States, “women are more likely to emerge and succeed in proportional party-list electoral systems [used abroad]” (p. 14).

In a closed party-list system, the party publishes a list of candidates. After votes are counted, the top names on the list, in order of succession, are given seats according to the vote total proportion won by the party. In other words, if the party wins thirty seats, the top thirty candidates on the list are elected. Various parties in Germany have different rules regarding gender. For example the Social Democratic Party has a rule where if the top candidate is one gender, the second name on the list must be a different gender. Christian Democrats have a rule where gender rotates with every other name on the list (Davidson-Schmich 2010 p. 139). These gender rules not only make a difference with getting women elected to office, they tend to catch on with other parties.

Davidson-Schmich has studied the effect voluntary gender quotas in the 2009 Bundestag election. She tells us that the Green party started using gender quotas for their election lists in the mid 1980s. Other parties on the left soon followed suit in what the author refers to as a “contagion effect” (p. 134). It was a matter of appealing to women voters — as parties without the gender quota were losing support of this constituency. After the Green’s started using quotas, along with the contagion effect, the number of female parliamentarians grew from 10 percent in the 1980s to 33 percent in 2010. The evidence is clear with gender quotas within nominating rules; more women are elected and more parties choose to adopt quotas. It is a win / win proposition.

The key to more women winning office is an election system that accommodates gender components. There is no tradition of party-list proportional representation in the United States. Nevertheless, there are versions of proportional representation, and other forms of voting that are constitutionally protected, which could accommodate parties who nominate with gender components. While these systems are candidate-based, they can still accommodate party nominees.

One such system is Ranked Choice Voting (RCV). RCV can be used either with proportional representation or single-winner elections. With this system, voters rank candidates in order of preference. The primary and general are folded into one election — instead of multiple rounds of voting and ballot counting, RCV produces a winner in one election[2]. By accommodating ballot preferences through transfers, RCV avoids candidates from the same party splitting their share of votes among a constituency. Therefore, RCV is well suited for parties with voluntary gender quotas to nominate multiple candidates.

RCV is used in many local elections in the United States. This system can work with either partisan or non-partisan elections. Currently, the local jurisdictions using RCV do so with non-partisan ballots. In 2008 and 2009, Pierce County, Washington briefly experimented with the partisan version of RCV (Ammons AP, 2007). An examination of this election revealed RCV did not split the vote between parties with multiple nominees.

Political scientists studied the 2008 RCV election in Pierce County. They concluded that the partisan version of this type of voting “[D]oes an effective job of simulating both a primary and general in one election” (p. 14) This partisan version of RCV allowed the parties to nominate their candidates without state controls such as an exclusive partisan primary or “prefers party”’ ballot device. The Washington State Democratic party in 2008 nominated candidates for every jurisdiction in the state without state ballot controls. While these nominations produced a single candidate for a respective office, Pierce County was different. Under the unique RCV rules, the County party chose to nominate multiple candidates for a respective office. An examination of the 2008 Pierce RCV election reveals the potential of a gender component with multiple nominations for a single seat up for public election.

There were four candidates running for Pierce County Executive. The Democratic party nominated two candidates; a male and female. The GOP nominated one male candidate. There was also an independent male candidate. Voters used the RCV system and ballots were tabulated. According to the study (p. 4), the GOP came in first place with 35 percent, the female Democrat came in second with 26.5 percent, the male Democrat won third place with 23 percent and the independent finished with 15 percent. As there was no majority, the independent was eliminated with his voters second and third preferences distributed to the remaining candidates. No candidate crossed the threshold. The male Democrat was eliminated with his votes splitting towards the female Democrat 3:1 to propel her towards victory.

RCV prevents vote splitting, therefore it can accommodate multiple nominees in a winner-take-all election. By simulating the primary in a single general election, RCV allows all candidates to participate in the open general election where more voters tend to participate. If Democrat’s had a gender component for their nominations, RCV would have accommodated the party’s rules.

A Spot on the Ballot, or A Seat in Office?

Partisan RCV guarantees a woman spot on the November ballot when parties use gender components. However, it does not assure her election. With party-list proportional, if a party with a gender component wins enough seats, the women nominees are ensured election. RCV is different as it is a candidate-based system. It can elegantly accommodate the expression of a party, while at the same time, it is up to an individual voter to choose which candidates to rank. A woman may fall short of getting elected. While structuring election rules is a good way to get more women on the ballot, voluntary gender components within party nominations with RCV are not a magic bullet to fill the gender gap.

Davidson-Schmich says that the within the last decade, the unprecedented rise of women members in the German Bundestag[1] has leveled off (p. 134). Here in the United States, if we hold the 1992 “Year of the Woman” surge as a benchmark, women in office have similarly leveled off. Lawless and Fox identify the gap in political ambition as the culprit in this leveling off in the United States (p. 166). They tell us this consists of three deeply embedded aspects of traditional gender socialization that inhibit women from running. These three are, traditional family role orientations, a masculinized ethos and the gendered psyche. These are real barriers to get women involved. The way to break down these barriers is by looking at rules that create opportunities to get women on the ballot.

A Comparison

Gender components in nominations within German elections have resulted with women sitting in 30 percent of the Bundestag. Using the German example as a measure, RCV with parties choosing to nominate men and women could nearly double the number of women in Congress from the current 19 percent. Germany’s mixed-member proportional system provides a comparison. Half of the Bundestag is elected winner-take-all from single seats while the other half is proportional representation with the whole country as an at-large unit. Germany uses closed party-list ballots for the at-large part of the ballot. Davidson-Schmich says parties don’t have gender components for the single-seat nominations. As a result, of the nominations of women were very low for this half of the Bundestag. The author says this can account for the stagnation of the number of women in office (p. 147). The rules matter with how parties nominate women.

Reformers could also look at the proportional version of Ranked Choice Voting. Research by FairVote’s Representation 2020 project shows that multi-member districts tend to elect more women. State legislatures that use multi-member districts have 31 percent women compared to states with single-member districts, which are 22.8 percent women (p. 18). The combination of a gender component in nominations with multi-member districts, promises a potent means to pull more women into politics.


Gender components within nominations are a proven device to get more women in the political arena. The rules matter in an election and an examination of them could open doors for women. A party-list proportional representation system could be a hard sell in the United States. Another issue is an anti-party attitude held by elites and voters alike. That said, political parties can open up their nominations with unassembled caucuses, mail ballots or online voting.

American versions of proportional representation have already withstood court scrutiny and are in use with local elections here in the United States. Until larger social issues regarding gender in politics lessen their influence on the gender gap, inclusive election rules can make headway towards parity of the sexes in politics.


Bylaws of the Democratic Party of the State of Washington,

Center for American Women and Politics (2014) CAWP Fact Sheet Women in the U.S. Congress Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University,

Davidson-Schmich, L.K., (2010) Gender Quota Compliance and Contagion in the 2009 Bundestag Election German Politics and Society, Issue 96 Vol. 28, No. 3 Fall

Donovan, T., Barreto, M., Collingwood, L., (2009) An Assessment of Rank Choice Voting’s Debut in Pierce County. A Research Report of The Washington Poll

FairVote The State of Women’s Representation 2013-2014 American Women in Elected Office & Prospects for Change, Representation 2020 A Century from Suffrage to Parity

Lawless, L.L., Fox, R.L. (2010) It Still Takes a Candidate: Why women don’t run for office. Cambridge University Press, New York

National Conference of State Legislators (2013) Women In State Legislatures: 2013 Legislative Session As of November 2013.

National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Project Grow


[1] Angela Merkel is the first woman Chancellor of Germany. She is also the first woman head of a German political party.

[2] With the single-winner version, choices are tabulated and any candidate that receives 50+1 percent is elected. If no candidate gets this threshold, the last place finisher is eliminated and their voters’ subsequent rankings are distributed among the remaining candidates. This process can be repeated until a candidate reaches the winning threshold.

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