As the nation elects more women to office, the Equality state falls behind

By Nick Reynolds on October 14, 2019

In the 1980s and ‘90s, few states elected more women to public office than Wyoming did.

While women still made up a significant minority of the state’s male-dominated state Legislature, Wyoming ranked among the top 10 states in the nation for the proportion of women it elected to serve in the capital each year. At the same time, 1995 saw Wyoming elect its first female congresswoman – Barbara Cubin – following up with two additional women in longtime state lawmaker Cynthia Lummis and the Equality State’s current Congresswoman, Liz Cheney.

Though the state has made additional strides in recent years – including the election of the first female mayors in the history of two of its largest cities – Wyoming’s political class has steadily descended toward a level male dominance that is especially notable in the first state or territory to grant women the unrestricted right to vote or hold office.

According to a recent analysis by the Washington, D.C. nonprofit RepresentWomen, Wyoming currently ranks 26th in the nation for gender parity in elected office – good enough for a “D” grade. Women currently hold just 16 percent of the available seats in the Wyoming Legislature and just 20 percent of all positions on the county commissions of the state’s five most populous counties. Notably, the Wyoming County Commissioner’s Association only named its first ever female county commissioner of the year – Teton County’s Natalia Macker – last week.

That lack of representation can have impacts that are heard louder than the numbers. In Nevada, which elected its first female-majority Legislature this past year, bills that passedincluded tougher penalties for domestic violence, permanent funding for rape kit testing and a sexual assault survivor’s bill of rights, along with a line in the budget to assist in paying for family-planning services.

“The relative dearth (and recent decline) of women in elected office at the state levels cannot be overlooked (or its importance overstated),” Jen Simon, the director of the Wyoming Women’s Action Network and vice chair of the Wyoming Council for Women, wrote in an email. “Less than 16 percent of our state legislators are women. When you read about the Nevada Legislature – now 50 percent female – and what bills were introduced and passed as a result of the gender balance, the importance of having more women in the state legislature gets really clear.”

Doing better

It’s important to note that Wyoming – despite a number of notable examples – has never been great at electing women, never crossing the threshold of 25 percent female representation in the Legislature. And though RepresentWomen’s gender parity grade for Wyoming has actually increased by roughly five points over the previous five years, the Equality State has, according to the report, failed to innovate while other states have managed to significantly increase female representation by far greater margins, leading to Wyoming’s slippage in the national rankings.

“Wyoming’s path to parity has seemingly halted and is in need of revitalization,” the report reads.

While representation on the national level can be bolstered by measures like gender targets for political action committees and parties, RepresentWomen director Cynthia Richie Terrell said making change at the state level must come from a number of sources, including methods like implementing certain tax credits for lawmakers or allowing them to use campaign funds for childcare to “build a narrative around importance of investing in the infrastructure of democracy.”

However in Wyoming – whose “by farmers, for farmers” citizen legislature model has proven a barrier for many but has remained immune to reform – finding palatable ways to improve representation without spending money could be challenging, and could even mean a drastic re-imagining of what the state’s representative democracy looks like.

One of the most successful strategies seen nationwide is to simply to increase the number of seats available, either through ranked choice voting or through the re-introduction of multi-winner districts – a system where certain House or Senate Districts elects multiple people to the Legislature, rather than just one.

While most research over the past 40 years has shown the concept has significantly improved gender and racial parity in the places where multi-member districts are implemented, the idea has failed to catch on nationally, with just 10 states across the country retaining a similar system.

This, according to Richie Terrell, is a problem that could help to elect more women to office. According to her organization’s research, districts that allow you to elect multiple members often outperform all others for the number of women they elect. While just three of the 10 states with multi-member districts count more than two members per district, all of those states – Maryland, New Hampshire, and West Virginia – elect about twice as many women in the multi-seat districts than in single seat districts in the same state.

“I think the reason for this is that women are more likely to run as part of a team or slate, parties/gatekeepers are more likely to recruit women to run to balance a slate of candidates, and voters are more likely to cast a vote for a woman candidate if they can vote for a man as well,” Terrell wrote in an email.

However, the Legislature costs money and, in a tight fiscal environment and a state skeptical of growing government, the best solutions might be the free ones.

“A free and easy way to start to change the complexion of decision making in Wyoming is to increase the number of women on appointed boards and commissions,” Simon wrote. “Right now, on average, only about one-in-three of these appointments is a woman.”

To prove her point, Simon named two examples: one in Iowa – which succeeded in passing legislation encouraging parity on its elected boards and commissions – and in Los Angeles, where Mayor Eric Garcetti issued an executive order taking a magnifying glass to the government and how well-suited it was to promoting greater levels of gender equity.

“These boards are a great way for citizens to engage with public service and can serve as a stepping stone to elected office,” Simon said. “It is a simple and effective way to change the landscape.”