Why Hillary Clinton Is Not Enough To Increase Women's Representation

For those who care about women's representation in elected office, Hillary Clinton's candidacy is a big deal. Our country has never been this close to electing a woman president, and the odds that she will triumph over Donald Trump or Ted Cruz are high.

Electing a woman president is truly a game-changer. As I have written elsewhere, one of the most powerful effects of a visible woman head of state is the role model effect it will have on women and girls' ambitions. Seeing a woman occupy the highest position of power in America will do much to our collective psyche and expectations about gender and leadership.

But although electing a woman president would have resounding effects on women's ambitions, it is not enough to fix the problem of women's under-representation in elected office. The rate of women's representation has stagnated at every level of public office; we will not simply see more women elected to public office "in time," or at least, not in our lifetimes, without changing the political systems and structures themselves.

The impact of gender stereotypes, media bias, childcare responsibilities, and other obstacles women candidates face notwithstanding, on average, when women run for office, they win. That is--once they knock down the barriers that keep women from running in the first place, they tend to be just as successful as men. The real problem is that our current political institutions do not create enough opportunities for women to run, win, and serve.

New people tend to get elected when there is an open seat--when the elected officeholder retires or steps down, leaving the seat "open" to contest. Otherwise, the incumbency advantage is often insurmountable for a challenger, unless the incumbent is vulnerable for some reason. In congressional elections, the re-election rate for incumbents is about 95%. As volatile as the political world may seem, members of Congress enjoy a great deal of job security. And because the vast majority of incumbents are men, the effect of this advantage is that the status quo gets perpetuated over and over--with the same men winning their elections, and fewer women being able to break into the political world.

Simply put, in our current political system there are very few opportunities for women to run for office and be successful. Studies of women's representation in other countries have shown that different electoral systems--like proportional representation--are much more favorable to the election of women. That is why of the top 20 countries for women's representation, 19 of them have election systems based on proportional representation. Ranked Choice Voting, an elections system that is often used in conjunction with multi-member districts and allows voters to pick first, second, and third choice candidates, also helps women and people of color win seats in office. In California's Bay Area, women and people of color hold 47 of the 52 elected offices filled using RCV.

In elections for the U.S. Congress, candidates run in single-member, winner-take-all districts, meaning only the winner--the candidate who gets the most votes--gets elected. But some state legislatures have multi-member districts, which means more than one candidate gets elected to serve a district. In many districts, one party dominates elections over and over, which leaves voters belonging to the opposing party completely unrepresented. In multi-member districts, members get elected according to their party's vote share--for example, if one district has four seats, and 50% of the vote is for the Democrats and 50% for Republicans, two Democrats get elected and two Republicans get seats too. This scenario also allows for the emergence of third-party candidates, who actually have a chance of getting elected as well.

Multi-member districts create more opportunities for non-incumbents and non-traditional candidates to run for office and win election. Ten states in America currently use multi-member districts in at least one legislative chamber, and these states rank among the highest for women's representation among state legislatures. Multi-member districts will also help reduce the advantages incumbents enjoy, and create more spaces for not only women, but people of color and third-party candidates, to get elected.

Hillary Clinton's candidacy has already done much to inspire legions of women and encourage them to run for office. The path she has forged will certainly make it easier for other women to run and win their elections. But as important as her candidacy is to increasing women's representation, it is not enough, and those of us committed to advancing women's leadership need to look ahead to the real changes that need to be made in order to achieve gender parity. We need to begin a serious discussion about institutional reform to create more opportunities for women to run and win seats so that the possibility of parity in our lifetimes can be realized.