The Equality State today ranks among the worst states for electing women. Only 18% of state lawmakers – just 16 out of 90 – are women, compared with 31% nationally (that’s 74 men, for those keeping count). Yet, Wyoming was not only the first state to recognize women’s inherent right to vote and hold office, but we were also the national leader for women in elected roles.
Between 1978 and 1992, Wyoming led the way in electing women to office.
But in the 1992 redistricting process, our state did away with multi-member districts. This move likely contributed to the steep three-decades-long decline in female legislators and the lack of equal representation in our state Legislature.
As state lawmakers continue the constitutionally mandated process of redistricting – the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing electoral maps based on new Census data to ensure “one person, one vote” – lawmakers are now discussing a return to multi-member districts.
Anyone who cares about representative government should be applauding.
At last week’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Interim Committee meeting, Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, recalled being elected under the multi-member district format. So, too, of course, was Wyoming’s first female U.S. senator, Cynthia Lummis, when she was elected to the Wyoming House of Representatives in 1978 and reelected in 1980.
Research shows that women are elected more often in multi-member districts than in single-member districts. Multi-member districts are simply electoral districts that send more than one representative to office. They’re also called multi-winner districts – meaning there is more than one winner – and they confer a lot of benefits for voters.
That’s why a recent policy brief from the Wyoming Women’s Foundation and Equality State Policy Center, Wyoming Women in Elected Roles, recommends that “Multi-member districts … be considered when creating redistricting plans.”
According to the nonpartisan group RepresentWomen, single-member districts disadvantage women and have “slowed progress toward gender parity.” The reasons for this are varied and the source of much debate. For example, do voters feel more comfortable electing a woman to represent them if they can also elect a man? That’s a discussion for another column.
At the same meeting, Speaker of the House Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, acknowledged that restoring multi-member districts might “solve some of the vexing issues” around drawing new election maps, noting that MMDs could also ensure that Wyomingites have more effective representation. He’s right: beyond leveling the playing field for Wyoming’s women who want to serve in elected office, reinstating multi-member districts could also address the vexing redistricting questions around population shifts from our state’s most rural counties.
Reinstating multi-member electoral districts is an opportunity Wyoming should not pass up.
The redistricting process offers a rare chance to make real strides toward more equitable, effective representation across the state. And because there are already very few women in the Wyoming Legislature – especially in the most powerful leadership positions – missing this moment has the effect of further disadvantaging women. There’s no question that Larissa Martinez at the Women’s Policy Leadership Network is right when she says, “Women’s representation in legislatures is greatly affected by redistricting.”
In other words, there’s a lot at stake.
Representation matters. When more women – and more people from a broad range of experiences and backgrounds – are at the decision-making table, we get public policy that reflects and supports everyone in our state. The benefits of that can’t be overstated.
And if we don’t have a truly representative body? As a recent New American Leaders report puts it: “It is the voters, absent representation that truly comprehends their policy needs, who suffer.”
Wyoming’s Joint Corporations Committee continues to move closer to completing the redistricting process. They’ll be back to mapmaking on Dec. 14. As this (mostly male; 12 men, two women) committee finalizes the election map that we’ll all live with for the next decade, we need to remember: The policies we get reflect who we elect.
We get better and more comprehensive policies when our lawmakers reflect the residents of our state. Which is why equal representation is fundamental to a healthy democracy.
We all stand to benefit from that.