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
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