Mobilizing the Underrepresented: Electoral Systems and Gender Inequality in Political Participation

Switching from a plurality to a proportional representation system increases equality in electoral participation along one central dimension: gender.


Democracies may strive for political equality but inequality in political participation persists. In particular, gender disparity exists in political participation where women are less likely to vote than men. Contemporary scholars argue that adopting proportional representation (PR) electoral systems— electoral systems in which parties gain seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for them— may increase the political participation of underrepresented groups such as women and ethnic minorities. These scholars argue that PR electoral systems incentivize political elites to appeal to unmobilized voters.

To study the political mobilization of underrepresented groups in democratic electoral systems, the author of this article examined the effect of the transition from plurality to proportional representation electoral systems on gender equality in voting. In contrast to proportional representation, in plurality electoral systems a candidate who receives more votes than her or his counterpart is the only candidate elected to a seat. The author drew on the literature on voter turnout and representation to establish the conditions in which a proportional representation electoral system may increase women’s inclusion in voting compared to a plurality electoral system. This study analyzed data from a series of Norwegian elections held in the early twentieth century to examine this phenomenon.


Transitioning municipal electoral systems from plurality to proportional representation in Norway, reduced gender inequality in voter turnout. This effect was even more significant in municipalities with greater electoral competition (higher overall voter turnout).

  •  In 1919, the fraction of female voters increased by 38% (SE = 3) in the municipalities that were required to switch from plurality to proportional representation electoral systems.
  •  For the municipalities that opted to transition from plurality to proportional representation electoral systems prior to 1919, female voter turnout remained consistent, with a 0.01-point increase between 1916 and 1919 – from 0.42 to 0.43.
  •  The switch from plurality to proportional representation in 1919 increased the fraction of female voters by an average of 0.096 percentage points for the reformed municipalities, compared to the municipalities in which the reform did not occur.
  • The 1919 effect of transitioning to proportional representation were most pronounced under two conditions: 1) in competitive municipalities and 2) where women’s networks are present.
  • The existence of women’s networks was measured by the presence of local organizations mobilized during the suffrage movement.

This study provides evidence that switching from a plurality to a proportional representation electoral system can decrease gender inequality in electoral participation . These findings suggest how socio-political conditions and the presence of political networks impact voting disparities among marginalized groups. Proportional representation in electoral systems can encourage the mobilization of underrepresented groups and subsequently increase gender equality in modern-day electoral participation


The author isolated the causal effect of transitioning to a proportional representation system on voter participation by studying 296 Norwegian municipalities that transitioned electoral systems during between the 1916 and 1919 elections.

To examine whether the shift from plurality to proportional representation had a positive impact on women’s percentage of the vote, the author compared the 1916 voter records to the 1919 voter records of the 296 transitioning Norwegian municipalities. Additional regression analyses compared voter turnout among the 296 transitioning municipalities to 392 Norwegian municipalities that previously transitioned to proportional representation before the 1916 election. The design aimed to compare (1) the change in gender disparities in electoral participation before and after the 1919 reform in the reformed municipalities with (2) the equivalent change in the municipalities that did not alter their electoral system (i.e., the municipalities that had introduced proportional representation before 1913). 

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