A new report has found that nearly every state in the U.S. is failing when it comes to electing women to local, state and federal legislatures, and suggests our nation will continue to fall short of gender parity for generations to come unless lawmakers embrace major reforms to the voting system. The 2017 Gender Parity Index Report, recently released by Representation2020 (an initiative of nonpartisan electoral reform organization FairVote), offers the first comprehensive assessment of female representation at the local, state, and federal levels in the aftermath of the 2016 election.
Women make up more than half the population and turn out to vote in significantly higher numbers than men. Yet, nearly a century after women earned the right to vote, women are notably less than halfway to equal representation in public office. The number of women in Congress and in state legislatures has stalled since the early 1990s. At that rate, women in Congress will not achieve gender parity until next century, and women in state legislatures will not have equal representation until after the year 3126.
In the 2016 election, the House lost one woman and the Senate gained only one woman. Only 24.9 percent of state legislators are women—a percentage that has barely improved since 1993, when 20.9 percent of state legislators were women. Currently, no state legislature has achieved parity of 50 percent women—Arizona comes the closest, at 47 percent, where 14 of 30 members of the state senate are women.
There is one silver lining: there are more women of color in office than ever before. But even this is presented with the caveat that, making up 7 percent of Congress, women of color are barely represented in country that is predicted to be a minority-majority nation by 2044.
The report awarded points to states based on the gender of the three most recent gubernatorial elections; the most recent election for all other statewide elected executive offices; the four most recent U.S. Senate elections; the most recent U.S. House elections; the most recent state legislative elections; the speakers of the state house and state senate presidents; the county executives in the five largest counties; and the number of women mayors in all cities with populations over 30,000 people. The weighted score was then translated to a letter grade, where states that have achieved gender parity received an A, and those with little to no representation of women in elected office earned an F. 33 states earned either a D or an F, and every state except for New Hampshire falls short of achieving gender parity. Nine of the highest-ranking states are in the Northeast or the West, while six out of ten of the lowest-ranking states are in the South (Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, and Mississippi).
New Hampshire, which has an all-woman delegation in Congress, and 29 percent woman state legislature, is the only state to earn an A grade. Mississippi, one of four states to earn an F, ranks last. It is the only state to have never elected a woman governor or member of Congress, and currently has no woman mayors. In its history, only four women have been served in statewide office (two of whom are currently in office).
What will push America closer to gender parity? While the Trump administration’s treatment of women has led to a surge of women running, Representation2020 director Cynthia Terrell cautions that a bump for women in 2018 “isn’t a guarantee that that will hold on to them in 2020 and beyond.” Terrell worries that there’s “tremendous energy for change” without a corresponding understanding of our electoral system. Calling the report a “wake up call,” she explains, “there are structural barriers that need to be addressed is to create the political bandwidth for all those women to be successful candidates.” Despite the current enthusiasm to elect women into office, unless the American electoral system undergoes major reform, women will continue to be sidelined in politics. “I think there’s got to be a lot more awareness of the need to look at the rules and system changes because without that, we just won’t reach parity—ever. Not in our lifetimes, for sure,” she said.
Globally, America’s ranking with regards to representation of women has plummeted from 53rd place in 1995 to 100th in 2017. To achieve gender parity, Terrell suggests that America follow the lead of higher-ranking nations by adopting their policies: establishing quotas for the number of female candidates and adopting more equitable voting systems.
Political parties should “just set a target for the number of women they nominate and political action committees should do the same, and donors should do the same,” Terrell said. “So the Democratic party, for example, should say, ‘We’ll increase the number of women we are nominating to run by 15 percent every election cycle until parity is reached.’ And that’s still going to take a long time, but at least there’s intentionality about who’s being recruited.” She went on to explain that while groups like VoteRunLead and Ignite National are galvanizing women to run for elected office, political organizations need to ensure there’s demand for the candidates, too—especially when there are so few available seats.
Most countries ranking above the U.S. in gender parity also employ proportional voting, which means every vote has equal representation in the outcome of the election. The American voting system is extremely polarized, with a “winner takes all” approach. (As Lee Drutman wonders at Vox, “Why do we accept an electoral system in which your vote is far more likely to shape Congress if you live in Des Moines than if you live in San Francisco?”). To ensure representation of woman and minority voices in elections, Terrell says that multi-winner districts should replace single-winner districts and local, state, and federal government should employ ranked-choice voting. Local governments that have adopted these systems have seen positive results. “New Hampshire is a great example,” she said. “It has some districts that are as big as 11 members for their state legislature and it’s just much more likely that women will be recruited to run when more than one person is getting elected and it’s more likely that voters will vote for a woman if there’s a chance for a man as well.”
Lastly, Terrell would like to see internal legislative measures that “impact the work culture in an elected body” that would support elected women, like proxy voting, electronic voting, on-site child care, and alternating committee chairs—a position which frequently positions political leaders to run for higher office.
The proposed reforms have three goals: create the demand for women to hold office, ensure that women will get elected to office, and then create an internal infrastructure that will retain women and help them thrive once in office. She likens the series of proposed reforms to Title IX, the 1972 federal legislation that banned gender-based discrimination in public schools and offered women equal protection under the law. Now more women graduate from college than men do. “Before Title IX, girls were discriminated against in the education system,” Terrell said. The remedy was not telling girls to train harder, or negotiate more aggressively, or study more—it was to equal the playing field. “We realized that there were rules and systems which were disadvantaging them,” she said. FairVote is helping draft legislation proposing these reforms, called the Fair Representation Act, which Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) is expected to introduce into Congress next month.
“Until we have a collective understanding and appreciation that there are actual structural barriers that keep women from being successful,” Terrell said, “women will continue to somehow internalize that they’re not trying hard enough or that it’s somehow on them to be different in order to have representation.”
“I think that we can agree that the 228 years of male-dominated governing has gotten us to a very bad situation and we certainly need to look at new models for leadership,” she said. “The fate of democracy rests in women from across the political spectrum figuring out how to work together to solve the country’s problems.”