Gender Quotas in Single Member Districts

By Gabrielle Bardall, University of Montreal

What is the story?

Single-member district (SMD) electoral systems have a bad reputation as far as women’s political representation is concerned. In comparison to proportional representation-based systems (PR), they have been widely considered to disfavour the election of women for a plethora of reasons. In particular, the single most effective tool in use today for enhancing women’s representation – the gender quota – has been viewed as excessively complicated or ineffective when applied in SMD systems.

Yet, over four billion people in 64 countries (or 53% of people living in countries with elected national parliaments) use a SMD system to elect their national parliaments. As SMDs are here to stay, and if the equality agenda is to move forward, we need to understand how gender quotas can work in SMD systems. In this blog post, I sum up the findings of a recent paper where my co-author Skye Christensen and I discuss the functioning and efficiency of gender quotas in SMD systems.

Types of gender quotas in SMD systems

The world of quotas is generally broken down between nomination quotas (or input quotas) and reserved seats (output quotas). Nomination quotas set limits on who can be nominated as candidate, for instance by setting a specific minimum threshold for women or minority candidates. Reserved seats specify certain mandates for these categories of candidates.

A nomination quota typically requires a minimum percent of each sex among candidates of a party in either (a) the collection of all SMDs of the country, or (b) in specially created PR-districts. The first option is applied in pure majority/plurality systems (such as in France) and the second creates a mixed system with both majority/plurality seats and PR seats.

Options for reserved seats are more varied. First, there is super-districting for which an additional tier of women representatives elected under plurality, majority or PR on a separate district, but joining the same elected body, as seen in Uganda.

Second, there are rotational quotas, as used in India’s local elections, where a proportion of the regular SMDs are reserved for women candidates one term out of three. Different districts fall under the reservation for each electoral cycle – through a rotation system – so that a portion of seats are reserved for any election, and over subsequent cycles the impact is spread geographically.

Third, there are alternate threshold systems that establish two thresholds for being elected: one based on greatest absolute number of votes (such as in any regular plurality system), the other based on greatest percentage of votes within a subset of candidates (in this case, women). Under this approach, all candidates (male and female) compete together in a single race and the candidate with the greatest number of votes wins the seat. Subsequently, an additional number of reserved seats are filled by those women candidates who received the highest proportion of votes without winning a majority/plurality in their district.

Finally, there are PR-tier systems, which indirectly elect women candidates based on results in direct elections held under majority/plurality races in a proportional fashion. While effective in raising the numbers of women in office, the PR-tier system is often criticized for marginalizing and undermining the legitimacy of the women elected under the system.

Use and efficiency of gender quotas in SMD system

Table 1 shows the use of the five gender quotas presented above in today’s democracies. Almost all the options perform as well or better than gender quotas in PR systems. They thus constitute effective innovations in SMD systems to ensure gender equality in parliamentary representation. Each of these systems has its advantages and drawbacks, as do the quotas used in PR Systems. A review of these cases reveals that quotas in SMDs are no more complicated or less effective than quotas used under PR.

Table 1: Gender quotas in SMD systems

Table 1: Gender quotas in SMD systems (click to enlarge)

For more information, see Skye Christensen and Gabrielle Bardall. 2014. “Gender quotas in single-member district electoral systems.” European University Institute Working Paper Series. Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies Global Governance Programme-134, 2014/104.

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