Reilly is the outreach and communications coordinator for RepresentWomen, a nonpartisan organization advocating for policies that would result in more women holding office.
"Who are to be the electors of the federal representatives? Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons [and daughters] of obscurity and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States."
— Federalist No. 57
Despite the rhetorically progressive foundations of the United States, more than 200 years later the U.S. struggles to uphold this quote from James Madison and Alexander Hamilton and many more of the ideals laid down by the founding fathers.
Throughout 2020 and into 2021 — whether it was the continued police brutality against Black men and women, the post hoc attempt to question and disenfranchise votes cast in diverse districts, or the inequitable distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine across the country — a larger and larger swath of the public is beginning to understand what activists have been sounding the alarm about for decades: U.S. democratic institutions are far from fair. And while the U.S. touts being a representative democracy, many individuals and communities remain underrepresented and face increasing obstacles to exercise their right to vote.
With 2020 being largely defined by the crises which continue to wrack American democracy, democratic reformers hope 2021 will be defined by the actions we take to address and correct the pitfalls of our electoral system and the continued disenfranchisement of huge portions of the American population.
And there is no shortage of work to do, since voting rights are still under attack, especially at the state level. Although the 2020 presidential and congressional elections saw some of the largest voter turnout in U.S. history, a February report from the Brennan Center shows 33 states have introduced 165 bills suppressing and restricting the right to vote — up from 35 such bills across 13 states in February of 2020.
As the 117th Congress begins to consider legislation, the voting rights and electoral reform communities have coalesced around bills with growing support both inside Congress and across the country — reforms which "respond directly to Americans' desire for real solutions that ensure that each of us can have a voice in the decisions that govern our lives." Reforms aimed to create a more accessible democracy, which reflects the true diversity of our country.
Voting Rights Reforms to Keep an Eye Out for
These bills have been endorsed by voting rights advocates including the NAACP, the Brennan Center, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
HR 1: For the People Act
The For the People Act was the very first piece of legislation proposed by the Democratic Party in both chambers — in the House, HR 1, introduced by Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, and in the Senate, S 1, introduced by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of Ne York, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
Considered "the most important legislation considered by Congress in decades," the has been endorsed by every House Democrat and will go to the floor of the House for a vote in early March. The act includes many reforms to ensure every American can exercise their right to vote and ensure elections are conducted safely and fairly. The act would:
- Expand vote-by-mail and lay out universal standards, including eliminating the need for a notary, witness or ID to vote-by-mail; eliminating the need to submit a reason for a vote-by-mail ballot; and making it easier to obtain and cast mail-in ballots.
- Increase opportunities for voter registration by allowing for online voting registration, automatic voter registration; same-day voter registration; pre-registration for 16 and 17 year olds.
- Put in protections to prevent the purging of voter rolls.
- Restore voting rights to those with past criminal convictions.
- Implement protections against discrimination and partisan gerrymandering.
- Increase election security and authorize election administration funding.
HR 4: John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act builds upon and expands the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. The act implements a new preclearance formula, which was stripped from the VRA in the 2015 Shelby v. Holder Supreme Court decision. The act would:
- Expand the time period in which election observers can be sent by the Department of Justice.
- Increase transparency provisions, requiring jurisdictions to provide notice of voting changes within 180 days of federal election and give notice of changes in polling places within 30 days of federal elections.
- Allow for private right to action, expanding what the VRA emphasizes, which was right of action from attorneys general and other election officials.
HR 51: DC Admission Act
The DC Admission Act, introduced by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, currently has 210 co-sponsors in the House, 46 supporters in the Senate and is considered a top priority by both Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Schumer. If passed, the act would enfranchise 712,000 Americans currently living without a vote in Congress.
Electoral Reforms To Keep an Eye Out For
While the above voting reform bills set out to ensure all individuals can exercise their right to vote, the right to vote alone will not cure the systemic underrepresentation many communities continue to face. Electoral reforms including changes to voting systems, district design and the size of the U.S. House would improve the elected representation of women and communities of color.
The Fair Representation Act
The Fair Representation Act sponsored by Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia implements fair representation voting to replace our current winner-take-all system, which favors incumbents, hindering diversity and often leading to a divisive, two-party system. The act would:
- Implement ranked-choice voting for congressional elections, lowering the cost of running for office; incentivizing positive and issue-focused campaigns; allowing for healthy competition by decreasing the incumbency advantage; and improving the diversity of our elected officials.
- Replace the single-member districts currently used for congressional elections with multimember districts. Multimember districts with ranked-choice voting creates a proportional representation system associated with higher diversity of elected officials.
- Expand the size of the House of Representatives. The size of the House was frozen in 1929 at 435 despite the House growing in conjunction with the country every decade since 1787. Increasing the number of open-seats will lead to new voices in government, voices more likely to be younger, more female, and more demographically representative of the United States, according to a study by the Fordham University School of Law.
The Ranked Choice Voting Act
The Ranked Choice Voting Act sponsored by Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democat, requires all House and Senate elections to be conducted with ranked-choice voting, eliminating the need for congressional runoff elections.
The Congress Commission Act
The Congress Commission Act sponsored by Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Florida, Democrat, includes provisions to create a bipartisan commission to analyze the current size of the House, study alternative voting methods to elect the House, and study the impact of gerrymandering.
In support of the bill, RepresentWomen's executive director Cynthia Richie Terrell has said, "Processes like this are increasing the number of women elected to office in the 70 or so countries that rank above the United States in women's representation."
Despite centuries of rhetoric saying otherwise, the U.S. government and electoral systems do not work equally for everyone. Our representative democracy is failing in one critical way, it fails to represent everyone; over-representing cis, white men at the cost of everyone else.
To ensure "the electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States," activists must continue to fight for systemic reforms and structural change and legislators must pass bold legislation designed to protect all American's right to vote and ensure fair and equitable representation for all communities.
- Revival of Voting Rights Act takes first step in Congress - The Fulcrum ›
- 11 states that would be impacted by a new Voting Rights Act - The ... ›
- Two bills to make the next election fair - The Fulcrum ›
- State lawmakers seek changes to voting rights laws - The Fulcrum ›
- HR 1 advocates see some modest reason for hope - The Fulcrum ›
- HR 1 advocates see some modest reason for hope - The Fulcrum ›
- Turning point for voting rights approaches - The Fulcrum ›
- States see fresh wave of bills to curb voting rights - The Fulcrum ›
Terrell is executive director and Reilly is a research fellow at RepresentWomen, a nonpartisan organization advocating for policies that would result in more women holding office.
Electoral systems matter. They have a profound impact on the government and elected officials we end up with. They influence who is most likely to run for office, win, serve and end up leading. They also shape the resulting government and inform our perceptions of our democracy and institutions.
Our winner-take-all voting system is continuing to fail us and our democracy — because it results in too many of our elected officials getting into office with less than a majority of votes and leaves large segments of our population underrepresented. Women make up 51 percent of the electorate, for example, but they hold only 25 percent of the country's elected offices.
Even after another record-breaking congressional election cycle, women will only make up at most 28 percent of the House next year and at most 26 percent of the Senate. (A couple of seats in each chamber have not been awarded.) And even though the highest number of women ever were elected to Congress last month, the United States will likely rank 70th in the world for women's share of seats in the lower legislative chamber — in the same bracket as Afghanistan, Mali, Slovenia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Bulgaria and Iraq. The majority of countries that continue to do better than the United States have taken intentional steps, such as modernized recruitment strategies and fair representation electoral systems, to reach and sustain political gender parity.
Our latest report on women's representation internationally, "Achieving Gender Parity: Systems Strategies Around the World," found that the United States is continuing to fall behind much of the world for women's representation. This summer the country ranked 83rd because at that point women held only 24 percent of the seats in the House. More than half the countries outranking the United States have a proportional representation system, while one in five of them used a mixed electoral system.
We found that electoral reforms gaining popularity in the United States, among them ranked-choice voting and multimember districts, have resulted in many successes for descriptive representation around the world. Australia, for example, uses ranked elections for both halves of Parliament. In the House, legislators are elected from single-member districts and women hold 31 percent of the seats — pushing their country to 50th in the gender parity rankings. The Senate has multimember districts (the system is sometimes known as single transferable voting) and now half the senators are women.
Nineteen municipalities in the United States already use ranked-choice voting, and many have seen improvement in gender representation, and have seen many successes for improving the number of women in city hall. In the most recent round of city elections, women made up 39 percent of the candidates in ranked elections — and 42 percent of the winners.
And in November, an additional five jurisdictions voted to adopt ranked voting for local elections, while voters in Alaska approved RCV for all state and congressional races starting in two years.
Although implementing ranked-choice voting at the local and state level is an important step, the reform we need in the long-term is called the Fair Representation Act, which would introduce ranked-choice voting and multimember districts to elections for the entire House of Representatives.
Passage of the bill would increase the number of competitive seats and political accountability, give voters a more informative choice and improve the descriptive representation in Congress. Projections from FairVote and RepresentWomen found that making the legislation a reality could increase the number of women in the House by as much as 38 percent. It could also increase the political power for all communities of color — increasing the number of Black members by as much as one-third, adding 15 more Latino members and pushing the number of Asian and Pacific Islander lawmakers into double digits.
But building a robust pipeline of qualified women candidates is not enough so long as gendered structural barriers persist in our electoral system.
A record $213 million was raised and spent by the 171 women running as congressional challengers this fall — and only 10 of them won, a success rate of 6 percent. This dismal statistic is not the result of unqualified candidates or a lack of financial support, but instead it's the byproduct of a voting system designed to favor incumbents at the cost of challengers and districts where both parties can be competitive.
But, there is a solution: Learn from countries around the world and implement systems strategies, starting with ranked elections and multimember districts, that will yield a truly representative democracy in our lifetimes.
- Focus on women's draft clouds report's public service ideas - The ... ›
- Why multi-member districts with fair voting rules would be a boon to ... ›
- Why women's issues are also democracy issues - The Fulcrum ›
- We need to stop using single-winner elections - The Fulcrum ›