Top-tier women in politics give other women a boost up the ballot

In a new study, Brian Crisp and Patrick Cunha Silva find that gender and ballot order have a surprising effect on voting outcomes.

Despite recent gains, women are still sorely underrepresented in politics. One reason – of, admittedly, many — may lay at the feet of party officials who create the ballots. Looking at ballots and election outcomes outside the U.S., researchers at Washington University have found evidence that women running for office improve their prospects if another strong female candidate is high on the ballot list.


Professor of political science Brian Crisp and his graduate student Patrick Cunha Silva demonstrated the effect in a proof-of-concept study. They collected data from 10 elections in Honduras, El Salvador, and Ecuador — all of which use what is called a Free-List Proportional Representation (FrLPR) electoral system. Within this system, said Cunha Silva, multiple members of congress represent each district, instead of just one. For comparison, though every U.S. state has multiple Representatives in the House, people in each U.S. congressional district (435 total) are only allowed to vote for one candidate. In an FrLPR system, instead, an individual can cast as many votes as there are available seats, and can even distribute their votes across party lines. Importantly, in these systems candidate names on the ballot are usually accompanied by a photo, making gender quite salient.

However, this is where it really starts to look different from what most Americans are used to: each party’s candidates appear on a list, but after voting the lists get re-ordered based on the number of preference votes received by each candidate. Candidates with more preference votes then get ‘bumped up’ the list, thereby improving their chances of getting elected. Cunha Silva explained, “Imagine there are 10 seats, and therefore 10 candidates on the party list. But, there are also multiple parties, and the lists are rank ordered. Because of this, voters have the opportunity to change the order of the list, based on their preference.”

List order policies in the U.S. vary widely according to state, ranging from order being determined by votes obtained in a previous election, to more simple policies like alphabetical or purely random listing. The FrLPR system naturally gives voters more choices and weakens a party’s influence, said Crisp, “so we were interested to see, if you send a signal of competence, does anybody hear it, or care, in systems like these?”

Each party has less control over which candidates eventually make it to the top of the ballot list, so there is more opportunity for the people to exert their will. However, the party still creates the initial ballot, and can therefore signal to voters which candidates they believe to be of high quality by placing them near the top of the list. Looking across all 10 elections, Crisp and Cunha Silva found that female candidates who shared a list with a woman near the top received more preference votes, and were therefore more likely to be ‘bumped up’ the list (improving their ultimate chances of election), than women on lists without a highly ranked female candidate. In fact, they received even more of the votes than an average male candidate.

“What really surprised me was that the effect was so consistent.”

Most surprising, however, they found that women on completely separate ballots also received a lift. Specifically, Crisp and Cunha Silva showed that the list-order boost wasn’t isolated to ballots where a woman was a top-tier candidate; instead, the benefit transferred to other lists in the district containing only lower-ranking women. If you’re initially skeptical, you aren’t alone, said Crisp: “The reviewers acted like, ‘What? Say that again?’ They made us look at the analyses so many different ways, and what really surprised me was that the effect was so consistent.”

Both Crisp and Cunha Silva were hesitant to offer a causal explanation for this boost by association; however, they did present two likely hypotheses. First, it could be that voters pick up on the signal sent by party leaders that high-ranking candidates are more competent, and carry this association with them when evaluating the relative merits of other female candidates. On the other hand, it could also be that the effect is simply due to an increased gender salience, or awareness, on the part of the voter. “It's possible that a higher rank really is a signal of competence,” says Cunha Silva, “but it’s also possible that it’s just a signal that women are out there; like, ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought about voting for a woman, let's vote for more women.’”

Crisp agreed that such questions are fascinating and important, but noted that untangling the factors will require more work. Still, ahead of a U.S. presidential election that will pit two men against each other, their findings point to an intriguing takeaway: Having women in politically high places could beget more women in those same places.