Structural reforms necessary to put more women in office

The Baltimore Sun. Posted by Cynthia Terrell on October 28, 2016

The nation may soon wake up to its first-ever woman president and most-ever women senators, but down ballot, the news is not good for women in elected office. At least 44 governors will be men next year, and the U.S rank among all nations for the representation of women has declined from 44th in 1995 to 96th in 2016.

Consider Maryland. In 1993, Maryland ranked 5th in Representation2020's Gender Parity Index, which measures women in local, state and federal office. While women have made up at least 32 percent of the state's House of Delegates since 1995, Maryland has never elected a woman to be governor, attorney general or comptroller. None of Maryland's five largest counties have women executives, either, and only two of Maryland's 10 largest cities have women mayors. Maryland has dropped to 21st in our index, and it's about to get worse.

FairVote's Monopoly Politics has near-perfect accuracy in forecasting congressional winners. Men are favored to win every House seat in Maryland this year, with only Republican Amie Hoeber having an uphill chance in the 6th district. Chris Van Hollen is heavily favored to replace Barbara Mikulski in the U.S. Senate, positioning Maryland to have its first all-male congressional delegation since 1972.

What can Marylanders do to elect more women and keep them in office? Structure matters. Our research shows that structural reforms are essential for clear and lasting impact on women's electoral success.

First, we need to improve recruitment. Better recruitment entails challenging the institutions that influence who runs for office — like PACs, donors and political parties — to set targets for the number of women candidates they recruit and support. These voluntary targets mimic the quotas that are used in over 100 nations to fuel the election of women candidates and are similar to the widely accepted gender balance that comes from rules in other fields like entertainment and athletics.

Second, we need fair voting systems that give people the power to choose their representation. Fair voting combines multi-winner districts with ranked choice voting. Multi-winner districts (where more than one member represents a community) have a history of electing more women. Ranked choice voting allows voters to rank candidates in order of choice. Like-minded voters are able to support the candidates they like the best without fear their vote will help the candidate they like the least. That creates openings for women, people of color and all parties in areas that are now one-party strongholds. It is in use today across the country and can be used at the local, state and federal level without amending the U.S. Constitution.

Third, we need to promote better legislative practices for collaborative policy making. Better internal legislative practices can help women — and men — juggle the demands of family and their elected office. Tailored to the specifics of the level of office, changes include better on-site child care, paid leave, virtual or proxy voting, and leadership selection processes based on both merit and intentional actions to elevate women to leadership positions.

We have strong precedents for such changes. Title IX leveled the playing field for girls and women in education and athletics, while the Voting Rights Act addressed systems that disadvantaged people of color. Republicans led the way nearly 100 years ago to enact gender quotas for their state and national party committees as well as convention delegates from many states, with the Democrats following suit. The common thread is that we addressed inequality by changing the rules and laws — not just by expecting individuals to change.

Maryland can lead the nation again on women's representation if we look at innovative strategies that challenge the status quo and bring new talented voices to the table.

Cynthia Terrell is a founder of Representation2020 and FairVote. Her email is cynthia@representation2020.com.

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