Systemic Solutions To Elect More Women

Angela Nguyen, Paul Healy

August 6, 2020

The Problem

Our country’s failure to create gender equality in politics is on stark display as American voters consider which septuagenarian white man to elect in November. The failed candidacies of several high-profile women in the Democratic primary reminds us that the U.S. lags behind peer countries in female representation in politics.

Improving female representation should be an urgent priority for our country. Beyond the intangible, democratic value of a better alignment between the population and its decision makers, there may also be more tangible benefits. Correlational research shows a positive relationship between female representation and public health outcomes. Most recently, countries led by women have been particularly successful in combating coronavirus. Women also have a better track record of working across ideological differences; they have been more effective at building coalitions and reaching consensus than their male counterparts, which may be especially important in today’s extremely polarized climate.

In diagnosing the most recent Democratic primary, many have been quick to point to potential sexism among American voters. While sexism likely does contribute to the lack of gender equality in American politics, we think America’s systems of voting and campaign finance amplify its effects. It seems unlikely that American voters are much more sexist than their European counterparts, but the structural incentives created by our institutions create more sexist outcomes.

Structural problems call for structural solutions. As we will discuss in this post, an election system based on Quadratic Voting and Quadratic Finance could drastically improve gender equality in American politics, without imposing harsh, top-down quotas. We at the RadicalxChange Foundation are eager to put this theory to the test and build pilot programs around QV and QF in public decisionmaking and campaign finance.

Quadratic Voting

Advocates for women in politics frequently endorse RCV as a potential solution. Estimates of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) taken at several points during the Democratic primary generally placed Elizabeth Warren in better position than she actually fared in the primary. While we are big fans of RCV, we believe that QV is an even more beneficial voting system because it allows voters to express the magnitude, or intensity, of their preferences rather than simply a ranked list. In other words, QV has all the benefits of RCV, as well as additional advantages that are worth considering as people look to change the way we elect representatives.

Quadratic Voting (QV) would likely boost female representation because voters do not have to stake their entire vote on one candidate, but instead can express the strength of their preference across the entire range of candidates available. As discussed in our Handbook For Radical Local Democracy, QV has two appealing features: it enables minorities with strong preferences to overcome majorities with only weak preferences, and it decreases polarization. Both of these features would likely lead to an increase in female representation in politics. In addition to using QV for actual, citizen-facing elections, we also believe that public bodies should use QV for appointed roles within government.

Quadratic Finance

The structural features of campaign finance in the U.S. also disadvantage women. A very small fraction of the population is responsible for most political donations: for instance, 0.26% of the population gives 68% of the money donated to Congressional campaigns. And it’s only getting more and more expensive to run for office. But female candidates consistently lag behind their male peers in fundraising. Not surprisingly, then, reforms that lower barriers to entry and decrease the role of private money in politics–for instance, “clean election” reforms that allocate public funds for campaigns that are equally accessible to all candidates—seem to improve representation of women.

Based on the available empirical evidence, we are confident that a comprehensive campaign finance reform that institutes relatively low ceilings on private contributions and creates public matching funds would very likely benefit female candidates (as well as candidates from other marginalized groups). This equalizing effect may come about in two complementary ways. First, and most directly, a reduction in the maximum allowable private contribution would reduce the inequality in resources between candidates. Second, more indirectly, donors might actually shift their contributions strategically: if donors want to back a winning candidate, and they realize that campaign finance reforms equalize the playing field, they may actually be more likely to contribute to the campaigns of female candidates whom they perceive as more likely to win in this new environment. These two effects would complement each other to equalize the playing field for female candidates.

We favor a two-step reform that first equalizes political giving ability by instituting “democracy dollars” style vouchers, so everyone has the same amount to spend. Then, a public QF matching fund can augment individuals’ contributions. Because the QF matching formula rewards more widely-shared preferences, this two-step reform would drastically amplify campaign support for candidates who have broad bases of supporters, relative to those who are preferred by only a few wealthy supporters. (See page 20 onward in our Handbook For Radical Local Democracy for a more detailed walkthrough of QF.)

We intend this blog post only as a signal for the direction of future work in this area. We are actively seeking philanthropic funding and governmental partners to pilot Quadratic Voting and Quadratic Finance. If you are interested in working with us, please email

Angela Nguyen is a student at Georgetown University and an intern with the RadicalxChange Foundation, where Paul Healy (@Paul_A_Healy) is a Policy Advisor.