Martha Hughes Cannon’s epic win for Utah State Senate in 1896 is still hailed as a watershed moment for women in politics. A statue of Dr. Cannon heads to Washington this summer, where she’ll take a permanent place in the U.S. Capitol as a bronze reminder of the accomplishments of Utah women in the 1800s.
Her race for the seat has delighted people since that first election day: Martha Hughes Cannon ran against her husband, Angus Cannon, and beat him.
The Deseret News has created a podcast, Zion’s Suffragists, to explore Utah’s early history with women voting and running for public office. It details some of Martha Hughes Cannon’s accomplishments as a state senator, and the laws she wrote that still affect Utahns today.
Some arcane details of that famous race may deserve a second look. The structure of the race may hold some clues about why she won, and for getting more women elected to public office today.
Ten people ran for an at-large senate seat in Salt Lake City in 1896, the first election since Utah had become a state. The five candidates with the most votes would win. The field included five Democrats and five Republicans. One candidate was African American, two of the candidates were women, and two of the candidates were married to each other.
On election day, Dr. Cannon was the fifth winner. She got the fewest votes of any of the Democrats, but enough votes to put her in the winner’s circle. She got more votes than all the Republicans, including her husband, Angus, and Utah’s legendary suffragist Emmeline B. Wells.
This kind of election was once common in the United States — where multiple people would win in a district. Utah had multi-member districts up until the 1960s, based on population density. In 1963, for example, Salt Lake County had seven senators, Utah County had two, Beaver County had one, etc. However, in 1965, single-member districts became the standard.
Political scientist Meredith Conroy and journalist Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux argue that multimember districts could be a “simple trick” to balancing state legislatures and executive offices in a country that still elects three times more men than women.
Research has shown that women benefit from multimember districts in multiple ways — they are more likely to run in multimember districts, and more likely to win.
In a multimember district, the parties may feel more pressure to add women to the ticket. The voters, too, may feel more willing to vote for a woman and a man, rather than voting for a woman instead of a man. This phenomenon doesn’t correct for anti-female bias, but may blunt it.
Another attractive feature of a large field is that the candidates don’t have to spend their time attacking each other, but can promote themselves. This may draw out women candidates, who might be otherwise put off by having to viciously campaign in order to serve in public office.
The famous race of Martha vs. Angus, for example, was never really a head-to-head contest. Martha Hughes Cannon ran on her own merits, and Angus on his. They didn’t spend time attacking each other on the campaign trail. (The newspapers, delighted that a polygamous man was running against one of his wives, created most of the drama in the contest.)
Multimember seats see more turnover, creating more opportunities for women to run against fewer entrenched politicians.
Wyoming is a prime example of the difference between multimember and single-member districts. Women held almost half of the elected offices in the state in the 1980s, when it had multimember districts. After the state switched to single-member districts in the 1990s, it moved to dead last among the 50 states for the number of women in public office. Today, it’s 48th.
Why would multimember districts go out of style in the U.S.? Why did Utah abandon them? It is related to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Any electoral practice that discriminates against racial minorities is illegal, and many courts have decided that multimember districts dilute the power of minority votes.
Researchers Sarah John, Haley Smith and Elizabeth Zack summarized the dilemma in a 2018 paper: “On the one hand, single-member districts are understood to be the best way to ensure representation for ethnic and racial minority groups, at least when populations are geographically concentrated. On the other hand, it is well-established that a greater proportion of women are elected in multimember districts in the United States, especially in state legislatures.”
Utah ranks 35th for the number of women elected to public office. The people trying to bring more balance to the state’s politics can point to a range of research showing the benefits of more women in every decision-making body. How to get them there is still up for debate.
The women in the Utah state legislature meet every year as part of the Martha Hughes Cannon Caucus to try to tackle these questions. The caucus includes the women in the legislature from both parties. They support each other, and mentor younger women in the hopes that they will feel supported in running, too.
Deidre Henderson, a Republican State Senator from south Utah County and a member of the Martha Hughes Cannon Caucus, says that mentoring young women in politics is part of a multipronged effort to increase the number of women who run in Utah, and the number who win.
“We want to help younger women who are just starting to get involved in public policy so that hopefully they can replace us,” she said.
Utah is unlikely to bring back multimember districts any time soon. So what about trying to recreate the best parts of them?
Recruiting more women to run is always the first thing on the list. Making elections less combative might be a taller order.