States’ Campaign Spending Proposals Could Help Level the Playing Field for Working Parents

A May FEC decision allowing federal candidates to spend campaign funds on childcare could make running for office significantly more accessible for parents. But its impact will be limited — so candidates and lawmakers are proposing reforms at the state and local levels.

August 9, 2018

In May, the Federal Election Commission ruled that federal candidates may use campaign funds to pay childcare expenses incurred while campaigning. That decision prompted commentary about the potential benefits for parents, especially women, who want to run for office. But as an earlier Purchasing Power piece noted, a federal rule alone will not help a large number of candidates. Pending state and local reforms that echo the FEC decision would create many more opportunities for non-wealthy parents to enter electoral politics.

At least eight such childcare spending proposals — some already successful — evince a growing public understanding of financial barriers to public office. These measures could help turn the tide in favor of a more accessible political system and maybe even more diverse options for voters at the ballot box.

Last year in Massachusetts, legislators in both houses introduced a bill that would mirror the FEC ruling for state legislative candidates. This year, New York State Senator Linda Rosenthal sponsored a similar bill, and two New York City Council members introduced a proposal that would do the same for municipal candidates.

Demands for approved childcare spending have come from candidates themselves. Candidates in Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Texas, and Wisconsin directly petitioned their state ethics boards for formal rulings or opinions — and all but Iowa said yes.

The particular candidates behind these demands indicate the complexity of socioeconomic factors — lack of personal wealth, single parenthood, membership in a racial minority — that may discourage a run for office. Iowa petitioner Reyma McCoy McDeid, then a state House candidate before her loss to Heather Matson in the primary, is a single mother with autism and was the only nonincumbent Black candidate for the Iowa Legislature this year. She had expected to spend four figures on childcare if she had made it through the primary election. Matson, also a mother, had voiced support for McDeid’s petition.

The recent discourse about childcare barriers to running for office raises important questions for further study. It makes sense that current candidates would benefit from being able to pay for childcare with campaign funds. But to what degree might such reforms draw in candidates from underrepresented constituencies who never before would have considered running? Would more fundamental reforms to reduce financial barriers to elected office — like small donor-based public financing — attract still more new candidates and offer voters a greater diversity of choices?

Consider the recent surge in campaigns spearheaded by younger women and candidates of color, evident in states where childcare spending proposals have become a topic of conversation. In Iowa, where the state ethics board just denied McDeid’s petition, a record 99 women have run for statewide, congressional, or state legislative seats this year. Run for Something, a nonprofit that enlists and trains first-time candidates under 35, has endorsed more than 40 state and local candidates in the seven states with childcare proposals, more than half of whom are women.

A new database of Black women in politics, maintained by commentator Luvvie Ajayi, shows 153 Black women running for office in the six states where childcare spending proposals have emerged. These numbers indicate a groundswell of interest among women of color in running for state and local office this year. Some of the most prominent in their ranks have made financial barriers to entry a key focus.

“One of the largest impediments for women running for office, particularly women of color, is the ability to raise money,” said Stacey Abrams, the Georgia gubernatorial candidate who speaks openly about her personal debt and other financial barriers she had to overcome to mount her high-profile campaign.

More comprehensive research and data would help reformers better understand how campaign finance regulations can perpetuate — or dismantle — financial barriers to elected office. We already have some information: A recent Stanford study links early fundraising with success in primary elections and shows that wealthier candidates’ professional networks often provide key start-up funds. We can also name gatekeepers: The Reflective Democracy Campaign, a research arm of the Women Donors Network, reports that major political parties and outside spending groups give vastly more financial and logistical support to white male candidates. But we need to get to the core of gender, race, and age disparities in elected office and ask to what extent personal wealth, financial networks, and family responsibilities affect those numbers. We could study how financial barriers — including lack of access to childcare for candidates with primary parenting duties — reduce candidates’ ability to spend time courting constituents and donors, cause them personal financial hardship, and ultimately keep some of them from winning. At the least we might revisit the 2004 study by former Georgetown political scientist Sue Thomas that showed that female state legislators remained primarily responsible for childcare and household duties, even after assuming public office.

The mechanics of access and representation are tough to fix. But, as scholars point out, expressly drawing into the public discourse the disparities of wealth and other privilege that working parents and others face can help break down barriers. These state and local childcare spending proposals could begin to change the public conversation about women’s political participation and provide a real step over one hurdle.

Shyamala Ramakrishna is a Research & Program Associate at the Brennan Center. Undergraduate intern Jaya Aiyer contributed research to this piece. 


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