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States and Cities Should Follow Recent FEC Ruling on Childcare

Campaign finance reforms at the state and local level could move the needle and position these offices as accessible stepping stones with far-reaching impact

  • Makeda Yohannes
August 1, 2018

As the 2018 elec­tions draw near, the surge in women and people of color running for office has received wide­spread atten­tion. Of course, these groups have suffered from egre­gious under­rep­res­ent­a­tion through­out Amer­ican polit­ical history. That’s what makes these campaigns so intriguing to watch. But their relat­ive novelty and still-low numbers under­score a long­stand­ing prob­lem: Socioeco­nomic barri­ers keep too many people of under­priv­ileged back­grounds from even consid­er­ing a campaign for elec­ted office. Now a new devel­op­ment in campaign finance could make it easier for a more diverse gener­a­tion of candid­ates to run, and win.

In May, the Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion (FEC) acted to address one struc­tural hurdle, ruling that candid­ates could use campaign funds to defray child­care expenses incurred as a result of campaign activ­ity. The case, brought by New York congres­sional candid­ate Liuba Grechen Shir­ley, became big news not only because of her high-profile support­ers — 24 members of Congress and Secret­ary Hillary Clin­ton wrote the FEC on her behalf — but also because the decision could set a favor­able stand­ard for states and cities.

Campaigns show­cas­ing female candid­ates have shown the greatest momentum at the state and local levels (with some notable excep­tions). The New York Times recently repor­ted that at least eight states could success­fully elect enough women this year to comprise 50 percent of their state’s legis­lature. This would be a signi­fic­ant boost in repres­ent­a­tion, since currently only one in four state legis­lat­ors (of a total 7,383) are women. Campaign finance reforms such as approv­ing child­care spend­ing — or, more funda­ment­ally, enact­ing small donor-based public finan­cing — could help narrow this gender gap.

Such reforms at the state level could have a signi­fic­ant trickle-up effect in bring­ing greater diversity to federal offices. The National Confer­ence of State Legis­latures has found that nearly half the members of the last 10 Congresses got there after hold­ing state legis­lat­ive office. Exactly half of all U.S. pres­id­ents and vice pres­id­ents had also once been state legis­lat­ors.

Some of this year’s most prom­in­ent female candid­ates served in local or state legis­lat­ive office before launch­ing more ambi­tious campaigns. In Texas, Veron­ica Esco­bar and Sylvia Garcia may become the state’s first Latina congress­wo­men, after winning in the primar­ies. And in Geor­gia, Stacey Abrams made history as the first Black woman to become a major-party nominee for governor. If elec­ted, Abrams would break another glass ceil­ing by becom­ing the first Black woman governor in United States history.

To appre­ci­ate the signi­fic­ance of these women’s candid­a­cies, consider a study by the Pew Research Center that found that of the 2 percent of Amer­ic­ans who said they had ever run for elec­ted office, 75 percent were men and 25 percent were women. The imbal­ance is also acute when it comes to race: 82 percent of the respond­ents who had run were white, while 6 percent were Hispanic and 5 percent were Black. Women and people of color have a far greater pres­ence as voters — more than 50 percent and 26 percent of the elect­or­ate, respect­ively — but too often lack a concretely repres­ent­at­ive option at the ballot box.

What is caus­ing this dispar­ity? The Brook­ings Insti­tute iden­ti­fied a number of social, polit­ical, and finan­cial barri­ers keep­ing women from becom­ing candid­ates. Women in the study were “seven times more likely than men to be respons­ible for more of the house­hold tasks and fifteen times more likely to shoulder (or to have shouldered) the major­ity of the child­care respons­ib­il­it­ies.” Common sense explains how these respons­ib­il­it­ies will hamper women without the personal wealth to hire assist­ance.

These find­ings mirrored congres­sional candid­ate Shir­ley’s own exper­i­ence. To launch her campaign, Shir­ley juggled primary child­care respons­ib­il­it­ies for two chil­dren while rais­ing more than $100,000 dollars. Once she star­ted campaign­ing full-time — attend­ing meet­ings, meet­ing stake­hold­ers, and canvassing her Long Island district — she needed to hire a child­care provider.

In her request to the FEC, Shir­ley reasoned that child­care expenses were a direct, legit­im­ate result of the demands of her candid­acy, and she should be permit­ted to use campaign funds to pay for them. Explain­ing the impact a decision in her favor could have, she wrote, “If we want more moth­ers with young chil­dren and work­ing Amer­ic­ans to run for office — and win — then we need to remove the insti­tu­tional barri­ers that are hold­ing us back. And the first barrier is paying for child care.”

Roughly one month later, the FEC unan­im­ously approved her request. And in late June, Shir­ley won her primary elec­tion with more than 58 percent of the vote.

But a federal ruling alone will not reach enough poten­tial women candid­ates who may run into the child­care barrier. Women’s polit­ical repres­ent­a­tion at the federal level is histor­ic­ally lower than at the local level: Currently, women make up 20 percent of Congres­sional seats, but 25.4 percent of state legis­lature seats. And while women of color comprise just 7.1 percent — or 38 seats — of Congress, they hold more than 450 state legis­lat­ive offices, 10 major-city mayoral posi­tions, and eight statewide offices. This year alone, more than 600 Black women are vying for federal, state, and local office. States could make a signi­fic­ant impact in increas­ing these numbers by follow­ing the FEC’s lead in redu­cing barri­ers to elec­ted office for non-wealthy moth­ers.

Makeda Yohannes is a Research & Program Asso­ci­ate at the Bren­nan Center. Under­gradu­ate intern Rebecca Kao contrib­uted research to this piece.

Source: Center for Amer­ican Women and Polit­ics, Eagleton Insti­tute of Polit­ics, Rutgers Univer­sity

Purchas­ing Power: The Conver­sa­tion

This post is part of the special series designed to provide well-informed comment­ary, fresh ques­tions, and new answers about the facts of money in polit­ics. Dive in to 'Purchas­ing Power: The Conver­sa­tion’ here. 

The views expressed by blog contrib­ut­ors are the authors’ own and not neces­sar­ily the views of the Bren­nan Center.