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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Why Dems Need More Women Candidates, and How to Get Them

From Steven Hill’s post in the Nation, “Why Does the US Still Have So Few Women in Office?“, via Moyers & Company:

…Compared to other nations, the United States is losing ground. America now ranks 98th in the world for percentage of women in its national legislature, down from 59th in 1998. That’s embarrassing: just behind Kenya and Indonesia, and barely ahead of the United Arab Emirates. Only five governors are women, including just one Democrat, and 24 states have never had a female governor. The percentage of women holding statewide and state legislative offices is less than 25 percent, barely higher than in 1993. Locally, only 12 of our 100 largest cities have female mayors.

Kind of a pathetic reality for the world’s most prosperous democracy. The numbers alone shame our democracy. From a progressive standpoint, however, it’s clear we pay a high price for our gender oligarchy, as Hill explains:

…In Patterns of Democracy, former American Political Science Association president Arend Lijphart found strong correlations between more women legislators and more progressive policy on issues like the environment, macroeconomic management, comprehensive support for families and individuals, violence prevention and incarceration. Other studies have found that women legislators — both Republican and Democrat — introduce a lot more bills than men in the areas of civil rights and liberties, education, health, labor and more.

So how do they do better in other countries?:

…Leaders in electing women include Sweden (45 percent female representation at the national level), Finland (42.5 percent), Denmark and the Netherlands (39 percent) and Germany (36.5 percent). Most of their political parties prioritize recruitment of female candidates, some even requiring “positive quotas” where half their candidates are women. And their societies have sensible policies in areas like childcare that make it easier for legislators to balance their service with their families.

That should be a no-brainer. Hill sees another reason that would require major electoral reform:

…The research of representation experts like the late Professor Wilma Rule has shown that, in addition to these positive quotas, the biggest reason for female candidates’ success in these advanced democracies is the use of “fair representation” electoral systems, also known as proportional representation.
These methods use multi-seat districts, rather than one-seat districts, where political parties (or, in a nonpartisan election, groupings of like-minded voters, i.e. liberals, conservatives, progressives) win seats in proportion to their vote share. If like-minded voters have 20 percent of the vote in a 10-seat district, its candidates win two of ten seats, instead of none; 40 percent wins four seats, and 60 percent wins six seats.
Such rules create multi-party democracy, since a political party can earn a fair share of representation with well under 50 percent of the vote. That in turn fosters greater accountability for major parties, as minor parties offer voters other viable choices. Facing real competition, major parties look to nominate candidates that broaden their appeal, including a lot more women. The German Green Party has never won over 11 percent of the national vote, yet for three decades has consistently won seats and promoted women’s leadership by having a 50-50 rule for female/male candidates, prodding other major parties to nominate more women.
How important is the electoral system to women’s success? A real-world test is provided by nations that use both fair representation electoral systems and US-style one-seat districts to elect their national legislatures. We can observe the same voters, the same attitudes, expressing themselves through two different electoral methods. The result? In Germany and New Zealand, women win a lot more seats chosen by the fair representation method than in those chosen in one-seat districts — twice as many seats in Germany.
American women also do better in multi-seat districts, even if proportional representation rules aren’t used. As FairVote’s report shows, women hold an average of 31 percent of state legislative seats elected in multi-seat districts, compared to only 23 percent elected in one-seat districts. Vermont’s state legislature has 41 percent women, elected in districts with anywhere from one to six legislators per district. Even a strongly conservative state like Arizona has 36 percent women in its state house, elected from two-seat districts.

Hill goes on to note that there is nothing in the Constitution that requires “single-seat districts,” but Congress did pass a law in 1967 to require single seats. And, “Public financing of campaigns also would help, since most women don’t have access to the good ol’ boy networks that primarily fund political campaigns.”
By all means, Democrats should give more support to such reforms to facilitate gender parity, even though they will take a long time under the most optimistic scenarios. Making recruitment, training and support for more women candidates a more urgent priority, however, is something Dems should do right now.

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