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17.6.04

Getting More Women In Congress

Echidne notes that, while the US has pushed for provisions in the Iraqi and Afghan constitutions requiring 25% female representation in the legislature, our own Congress falls short of that mark. This got me thinking about how one would implement such an affirmative action plan (i.e. one that establishes a degree of representation by fiat, rather than through incentive and outreach) for an elected body, as opposed to the typical use of affirmative action in situations with a centralized hiring/admissions department.

In a proportional representation system, it's easy (This page suggests that just switching to proportional representation, even without any explicit affirmative action requirement, will bost women's representation). Parties already write up their list of candidates, so you simply require them to include a certain proportion of women, distributed through the list with a certain regularity. But what about a geographical constituency system such as we have in the US? I'm not among those progressives who thinks that we should move to an entirely proportional representation system, because I think there are merits to having a legislator with a close connection to your community, and it seems that geographical constituencies make it easier for outsider candidates to get in, and for mavericks who don't toe the party line. (My personal preference would be to leave the House as it is with additional controls on gerrymandering, while shifting the Senate to proportional representation).

One option, paralleling the strategy under proportional representation, would be to require parties' slates of candidates to include a certain proportion of women. There are two problems here. One is that, since coordination between parties is unlikely, we'd get a fair number of opposite-sex races, and thus the gender balance in the resulting legislature would be vulnerable to the electoral choices of voters. It's likely that men would win a disproportionate number of the opposite-sex races, both because of sexism in the electorate, and because parties would tend to fulfil their female quota by running women in the other party's "safe" seats, seats disproportionately held by men. The second issue is that this increases the power of the party. In order to ensure the correct proportion of female candidates, a central party authority would have to select the whole slate. This would hurt outsider candidates, since the people selected would be those who have "paid their dues" and ingratiated themselves to the party leadership (certainly this happens already, but we at least have formal openness). Social scientists have also found that women, non-whites, lower-class people, etc. who have attained power in the modern US tend to be those who have learned to think and act like male white middle-class people. Any system that strengthens the party hierarchy would seem to exacerbate this phenomenon, resulting in a situation in which the distribution of X chromosomes in Congress would be much more diverse than the distribution of perspectives and interests and the distribution of opportunity for aspiring legislators.

Another possibility would be to assign certain districts as "women's districts." The FEC would say "districts 2, 6, and 10 must elect a woman, the others may elect anyone." This would avoid giving the parties additional power, as any woman could throw her hat into the primary or general election ring. The downside would be that it restricts some voters' and candidates' choices more than others', by singling out some people and requiring that they be represented by a certain type of person, while their neighbors in the next district benefit from a geographic accident. We might reduce this unfairness by making a rotating system, in which the "women's districts" would be reallocated every so many terms. There would be problems here with term limits (unless legislators are limited to a single term) -- some politicians would be kicked out of office simply because it was time for someone of a different gender to have the seat.

We might also consider a hybrid geographic-stakeholder style constituency system. A stakeholder constituency system* is one in which defined interest groups are assigned seats for their representatives, as in the case of the New Zealand Parliament, where Maori people may vote for a separate group of designated Maori seats rather than their general proportional representatives. So we might, for example, consolidate our electoral districts into half the number, then within each district elect a male and a female representative. This system would work much less well when there are multiple affirmative action programs going on (gender, race, class, etc.), or when the threshold of representation is less than "proportional to the population" (e.g., if we just wanted to ensure at least 25% female representation, rather than requiring 50-50). The degree of aggregation required would destroy the geographic specificity of the districts, moving us toward a more pure stakeholder system.

*No idea if this is the actual name for this kind of thing.

UPDATE: This appears to be Echidne's source. Interestingly, the article claims that women don't suffer significant bias in elections, so the main issue is getting qualified women to run.

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