Abdulgader Bashir

Part 4: Electoral rules and representation


Electoral rules determine how votes are translated into seats. This affects women’s representation.

Electoral systems: majoritarian versus proportional

The two most common electoral systems are majoritarian systems and proportional representation (PR). In majoritarian systems, also known as winner-take-all systems or a first-past-the-post system, politicians compete for individual district seats. Candidates who receive the highest vote share win the election and represents the district. This electoral system is believed work best in, it is seen as having the best fit with homogeneous contexts. If used in heterogeneous contexts, where ethnic and religious diversity are high, then it is likely that the majority will dominate the political scene. 

In systems that apply proportional representation rules, votes are primarly cast for political parties instead of individual candidates. Legislative seats are then allocated to correspond with each party's vote share. Proportional representation rules also allow for features such as closed lists or open lists. In closed list systems, candidates are elected according to their pre-determined position on the list – if a party wins six seats, the first six candidates on that list take the seats. Closed list, are a feature in Sudan as voters can (effectively) only vote for political parties as a whole. Open list systems, in contrast, allow voters to cast votes for individual candidates on the list. The exact rules of open lists vary, but they can usually be classified as either fully- or semi-open. Under fully-open list systems, control over who is elected is entirely in the hands of the voters – the candidates with the most individual votes are elected. But under semi-open systems, candidates are only elected if they cross a set threshold to overrule the party’s order. 

PR systems are regarded as the best electoral system to empower minority voices and best suited for heterogeneous contexts. In some contexts, like Sudan, you find a combination of the two. Sudan’s 2008 electoral law introduced a mixed system in which some national legislative representatives were elected in single-member, winner-takes-all district races while others were elected in multimember districts using proportional representation.[i] This despite the fact that Sudan’s cultural, ethnic and religious diverse population would be best served with an entirely proportional election system.

Proportional systems, tend to be more beneficial to women’s representation than majoritarian electoral systems.[ii] There are several reasons why this is the case. Under proportional systems, where the emphasis is put on parties rather than individuals, party leaders face lower/fewer costs when nominating women.  Party leaders typically have significant control over nominations to the list; therefore, they can create lists that include women without risking backlash from powerful or entrenched incumbents. This flexibility allows parties to better compete for the votes of those who want to support female candidates. Proportional systems have consistently higher district magnitudes,[iv] so parties can pull candidates from deeper in their lists, which is believed to increase women’s probability of getting elected.[v] The proportional outcomes and a wider variety of candidates provide more choices and greater diversity, thereby giving more women a chance to run and win.[vi] 

The research evidence as to whether it benefits women is mixed. Early work suggested that open lists were preferable for women candidates[vii]  as they allowed voters to express their preference for a particular candidate and move them higher or lower on the list. Such a list system would prevent parties from holding women back by placing them lower on the list. Open lists, however, tend encourage the cultivation of the personal vote[viii] which can hinder women in the presence of cultural bias against them.[ix] In Sudan, for example, women are seen as emotional and thus not fit for political leadership because of their gender. [x]

In countries where there is a cultural bias against female politicians, closed lists would probably be favorable. However, if the party leaderships are exclusively male and share the cultural bias towards women in politics, operating with a closed list system might not make any difference. In such contexts party leaders are unlikely to nominate any women. The process to nominate for state governors in Sudan after the 2019 revolution is a good example. The Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) whose leadership is almost exclusively male presented an all-male list of nominations saying that the conservative Sudanese culture was not ready for female leadership; that there were no competent women and that their emotional nature stood in the way of their ability to lead.[xi]

 Internal party rules

In addition to electoral rules, internal party nomination methods influence women’s chances of standing as candidates for election. Two particular dimensions are important to consider,  how much control the party has over candidate selection (centralization) and who controls the nomination process at the appropriate level  (participation).  When nomination decisions are mainly decided by the party’s local branches, it is a bottom-up approach, and the process is decentralized. A centralized nomination process is a system where candidates are chosen at the national level. The people in charge of choosing the nominees vary from the party leaders (the party executive), constituency committees, and party members to even the public voters. The more people are allowed to participate in candidate selection, the more inclusive the process (Rahat 2009).

Parties that adopt more democratic nomination processes tend to field fewer women candidates.[xvi]  Smaller numbers of selectors may, therefore, be better coordinated in ensuring better women’s representation in line with a party’s intended goals.[xvii] It is however necessary that political party prioritizes women’s political representation. In Latin America, when there are a small number of selectors making nomination decisions at the national level, the level of women’s representation is higher.[xv] 



[i] Sudan’s 2008 electoral law introduced a mixed system in which some national legislative representatives were elected in single-member, winner-takes-all district races while others were elected in districts using Closed-List Proportional Representation (PR)

[ii] Rule, W. (1987). Electoral systems, contextual factors and women's opportunity for election to parliament in twenty-three democracies. Western Political Quarterly40(3), 477-498; Paxton, P. (1997). Women in national legislatures: A cross-national analysis. Social science research26(4), 442-464; Matland, R. E. (2005). Enhancing women’s political participation: legislative recruitment and electoral systems. Women in parliament: Beyond numbers2, 93-111.

[iii] Norris, P. (1985). Women's legislative participation in Western EuropeWest european politics8(4), 90-101.

[iv] District magnitude is the number of representatives elected to each electoral district

[v] Rule, W. (1987). Electoral systems, contextual factors and women's opportunity for election to parliament in twenty-three democracies. Western Political Quarterly40(3), 477-498; Welch, S., & Studlar, D. T. (1990). Multi-member districts and the representation of women: evidence from Britain and the United States. The Journal of Politics52(2), 391-412; Rule, W., & Zimmerman, J. F. (Eds.). (1994). Electoral systems in comparative perspective: Their impact on women and minorities (No. 338). Greenwood Publishing Group.

[vi] Welch, S., Ambrosius, M. M., Clark, J., & Darcy, R. (1985). The effect of candidate gender on electoral outcomes in state legislative races. Western Political Quarterly38(3), 464-475; Clark, J. H., & Caro, V. (2013). Multimember districts and the substantive representation of women: An analysis of legislative cosponsorship networks. Politics & Gender9(1), 1-30.

[vii] Rule, W., & Shugart, M. (1995). The preference vote and the election of womenVoting and democracy report.

[viii] Carey, J. M., & Shugart, M. S. (1995). Incentives to cultivate a personal vote: A rank ordering of electoral formulas. Electoral studies14(4), 417-439.

[ix] Larserud, S., & Taphorn, R. (2007). Designing for Equality: Women's quotas and women's political participationDevelopment50(1), 36-42; Buitrago, M. P., & Aroca, M. P. (2017). Effects of institutional reforms on women's representation in Colombia, 1960–2014. Latin American Politics and Society59(2), 103-121.

[x] Shifting Terrains of Political Participation in Sudan (idea.int)

[xi] Patriarchy, Politics and Women’s Activism in Post-Revolution Sudan (cmi.no)

[xii] Moncrief, Gary F., Peverill Squire, and Malcom E. Jewell. 2001. Who Runs for the Legislature? Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall; Darcy R, Susan Welch, and Janet Clark. 1994. Women, Elections, and Representation. 2d ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 15 –25.

[xiii] Niven, D. (1998). Party elites and women candidates: The shape of biasWomen & Politics19(2), 57-80; Lee, H., & Shin, K. Y. (2016). Gender quotas and candidate selection processes in South Korean political parties. Pacific Affairs89(2), 345-368.

[xiv] Carroll, Susan J. 1994. Women as Candidates in American Politics. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[xv] Hinojosa, M. (2012). Selecting women, electing women: Political representation and candidate selection in Latin America. Temple University Press.

[xvi] Rahat, G. (2009). Which candidate selection method is the most democratic? 1. Government and Opposition44(1), 68-90

[xvii] Ibid.


Additional Open Access Resources

  1. How electoral rules affect representation in Switzerland 
  2. Impact of electoral reform on women's political representation