The Preference Vote and Election of Women

Women Win More Seats in Open List PR        

Wilma Rule and Matthew Shugart

        Women's representation in parliament in long-established democracies in 1995 varied from 2% in Japan's lower house to 41% in Sweden. The United States ranks in the lower middle with 11% in the House of Representatives, just below Ireland.
        What accounts for this variation? We believe that a substantial part of it can be explained by the existence of laws that allow voters to choose specific candidates among the several that a party nominates in multi-seat districts.
        Voters in thirteen European countries and Japan may choose women and/or men for their preferred representatives among the candidates nominated by their political party in the final and decisive election.
        Women would appear to have less opportunity for parliamentary election where voters' choice is limited, where they must choose only a fixed party slate of candidates, and where single member districts are used, as in the United States.
        But does increasing voters' options make the difference in women's legislative representation compared to countries which do not have it? Or could the determining factor be the number of representatives in a district (district magnitude), or perhaps the social, economic and political context?
        To answer these and other questions the authors conducted a study of 24 nations with and without "preference vote" laws to determine the relationship between the preference vote and women's election to parliament.
        Studying women's representation in parliament from 1970-1991, each of the 24 nations' electoral laws was investigated and each country was classified as to whether voters both had the preference vote and generally used it. Because women's use of the preference vote to increase their parliamentary representation is documented only for Belgium, Denmark, Finland, and Italy, no general classification could be made on women's use.
        Countries with a utilized preference vote included Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg and Switzerland. Countries with a non-utilized preference vote include Austria, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
        Ten countries without a preference vote in the decisive election are the single member district countries of Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, United Kingdom and United States and the fixed/closed list PR countries of Germany, Israel, Spain and Portugal.
        Effective district magnitude, a more accurate measure than a country's average seats in electoral districts, was used to test whether a large magnitude and a preference vote made a difference in the proportions of women MPs elected.
        Contextual variables included political party proportions in parliament, unemployment, women in the labor force and among college graduates and dominant religion. Previous studies have found all these variables to be secondary in importance to the electoral system for explaining women's greater or lesser representation in parliament.

The Findings: Role of the "Preference Vote"

        Countries with a preference vote law in the 1970-1991 period averaged 13% women members of parliament, with Japan at the bottom and Finland first with 27%. The ten countries without a preference law averaged only 6%. They ranged from a low of 3% in Australia to a high of 9% in Germany.
        However, unless the district magnitude is over five representatives in a district, the preference vote does not make a significant contribution to women's election to parliament. This is the case for Greece, Ireland, and Japan -- each of which has a different electoral system. (Greece has party list PR; Ireland, preference voting, or single transferable vote; and Japan, the single nontransferable vote, a form of limited voting.)
        When Greece, Ireland and Japan -- which average only four representatives in a district -- were eliminated from the multiple regression tests, women's representation showed significant increases. Magnitudes for the remaining preference vote countries ranged from Norway's 7 representatives to the Netherlands' 75. (All were logged, however.)
        A preference vote combined with a party-list/PR system and large magnitudes resulted in the greatest proportion of women MPs among 21 countries tested (Greece, Japan and Ireland omitted). In countries with high women's representation, center and left-wing political parties were second in importance to the preference vote and other electoral systems features. This includes Norway and Denmark which elected an average of 27% and 23% women MPs, respectively, between 1970-1991.
        In Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, which all have party list PR electoral systems and a non-utilized preference vote, women candidates also did very well. One possible explanation is that women preferred working within parties to obtain favorable placement on the lists. Another was that party leaders knew that if women were not well positioned, voters could be rallied to use the preference vote and change the order on the lists.
        Closed/fixed list countries with party list/PR and majority/plurality countries have low women's representation over the twenty years studied. Germany and New Zealand had only about 9% women in parliament from 1970-91. The United States was in the middle with 4% and Australia last with 3%.
        The societal factors interact with all countries' electoral systems in the 24 countries studied. Favorable factors are lack of a dominant religion, large proportions of women in the workforce and among college graduates and full employment. Countries with these characteristics and favorable electoral procedures are high in women's parliamentary representation; those without have one-third or less women in their national legislatures.

Preference Voting a Tool for Women

        Japan, Italy and New Zealand changed electoral systems in 1993-1994 -- Japan and Italy because their corruption was seen as a consequence of their electoral systems with preference voting, New Zealand because of voters' dissatisfaction with their plurality, single-member district election system.
        While blame was placed on the preference vote in Japan and Italy, which subsequently eliminated it, other countries with it have prohibited donors from giving money and gifts to parties, candidates and parliament members and have had little corruption.
        New Zealand with 16% women in parliament in 1990 does not fit the generalization that very low proportions of women can generally be expected in plurality or majority electoral systems. Likewise Belgium with a preference vote and the party list/PR system is also an anomaly with only 9% women parliamentarians. These and other exceptions are subjects for further study.
        Electoral systems with a preference vote law and high district magnitude generally can help overcome societal hindrances to women's successful recruitment to parliament. However, favorable societal conditions cannot make up for unfavorable electoral arrangements. Finally, it appears that the preference vote has a symbolic democratic value. It is there if voters choose to use it.

        Wilma Rule adjunct professor of political science, at the University of Nevada, Reno, is co-editor of Electoral Systems in Comparative Perspective: Their Impact on Women and Minorities (Greenwood, 1994). Matthew Shugart, associate professor of political science at the University of Calif.-San Diego, is co-author of Presidents and Assemblies, Constitutional Design and Electoral Dynamics (Cambridge University Press, 1992).


        Women in Legislatures Around the World

        Following are percentages of women in parliament for selected democracies. Countries in bold have winner-take-all systems.

Country % Women Election Date
Sweden 41% 9/94
Finland 39% 3/91
Norway 36% 9/89
Denmark 33% 12/90
Netherlands 29% 9/89
Germany 26% 10/94
South Africa 25% 4/94
Iceland 24% 4/91
Austria 21% 10/90
Switzerland 18% 10/91
Slovak Republic 18% 12/92
Spain 16% 12/93
Italy 15% 3/94
Latvia 14% 12/93
Bulgaria 13% 10/91
Estonia 13% 9/92
Russia 13% 12/93
Ireland 12% 11/92
United States 11% 11/94
Czech Republic 10% 12/92
Poland 10% 10/91
Belgium 9% 11/91
Portugal 9% 10/91
United Kingdom 9% 4/92
Hungary 7% 4/90
Lithuania 7% 11/92
France 6% 3/93
Greece 5% 4/90

Source:        Inter-Parliamentary Union and The Center for Voting and Democracy

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