Another choice
Choice voting would help put an end to the political boys club in places like Milwaukee.

By Mary Ryan
Published August 29th 2005 in
The city of Milwaukee is suffering from a leadership deficit.

Considering Milwaukee’s figureheads, you might be surprised the city is more than half female, just like most cities. Cultural organizations do not boast female leaders. The Milwaukee Reparatory Theater’s Managing Director and Artistic Director are both male. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra boasts a male president/executive director, male chorus directors, and male pops conductors. The Milwaukee Ballet has a male artistic director and male music director. Summerfest has a male director. Higher education further entrenches the trend. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, only one dean is female and the chancellor is male. MATC and MSOE both have male presidents. Politically, and perhaps most significantly, the city leadership is overwhelmingly male. There has never been a female mayor. The current Milwaukee Board of School Directors has only three women. The Milwaukee City Council is entirely male. These leaders are competent individuals, but so are many women. Why aren’t women sharing the lead?

During her keynote address at June’s Institute for Women’s Policy Research conference, Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton summarized an instructive discovery of the Wisconsin Women Equal Prosperity initiative: “We heard how attitudes become tangible barriers to success, and it became clear that nothing more effectively clears the path for a woman to make her best contribution than visible role models and mentors.”

The city of Milwaukee is a political boy’s club. Certainly a man could represent women’s interests, but many do not. Ultimately, though, that whole argument averts the fundamental disgrace of men holding all political power. Women in a democracy have an inherent right to equal opportunity of representation, and girls deserve strong role models just like boys do.

If the leaders in the city of Milwaukee agree, they should enact choice voting for city council and school board elections. In choice voting, voters rank the candidates on their ballot in order of preference, putting a "1" by their first choice, a "2" by their second choice and so on. Choice voting helps women by creating a lower threshold, or the exact number of votes a candidate needs to win. For example, in a 10-seat council, candidates need roughly 10 percent of the votes to win, and the threshold would be approximately 10 percent of the total number of votes cast. Voters can rank as few or as many candidates as they wish, and a second choice will never count against his/her first choice and so on.

Single member districts historically hurt women candidates. When women run they are just as likely to receive community support as men, but the winner-take-all system can prevent women from being elected. The status quo protects incumbents, making it difficult for women to stake out viable seats. Parties sometimes discount qualified women candidates because they worry it disadvantages them in general elections. Voters vote for whichever candidate is thought most likely to win an election, leaving voters who prefer women candidates either forced to conform to the “safe” candidate or “spoil” their vote in favor of their conscience.

Voters will not be afraid to vote for a female candidate under choice voting because they know even if their preferred candidate loses their second choice still counts. Choice voting encourages coalition building both between like-minded candidates of different genders and between candidates and their female constituencies. When male candidates know that their female competitors can be elected with a minority of the vote or as second choice candidates they will be more likely to encourage and support like-minded women candidates. Likewise, when the female constituency is empowered under choice voting all candidates will have to listen to and take seriously the women in their districts.

Former president of NOW Patricia Ireland endorses choice voting as a means of creating responsive government: "As political pundits again discuss the depressing voter turn-out in the U.S., a system that can empower people must be seriously considered, and as feminists analyze our meager gains in the House and Senate, we believe that proportional representation may be the best way to build a government that is responsive to our issues."

Choice voting has other advantages. Under our current system, the candidates seeking support from voters have incentive to trash their opponents. Single-member districts and winner-take-all are all-or-nothing games. With choice voting, candidates still need to differentiate themselves to gain voter support, but cannot be overly negative if they desire the voter’s second or third preference. Slates and collaboration become increasingly valuable.

Electing women to positions of power is a vital component to strengthening Milwaukee. Choice voting should be enacted to provide fair, diverse representation, build community, and solve problems more cooperatively and directly.