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How to close the massive gender gap in Congress

Women's lives improve when government is more inclusive. So let's do this already. 

Rep. Cheri Bustos, the Illinois lawmaker who is charged with ensuring House Democrats hold on to their majority, had some brutally honest words for a 20-something woman asking when Congress might see gender parity.

“Probably in your lifetime, not mine,” Bustos, a 57-year-old Congress member in her fourth term, said during a March event. At the gathering, hosted by the Wing in Washington, DC, Bustos spoke at length about the need to recruit more women to the Democratic Party (she’d like to get to set a new record in the House, building on the 89 who are currently serving) while recognizing just how many challenges remain.


Most experts agree with Bustos, whose estimate may even be a bit optimistic. According to an analysis by Deutsche Bank Securities chief economist Torsten Slok, at the current rate, the US is about 90 years away from seeing equal numbers of men and women in Congress. It’ll happen by 2108 — if we’re lucky.

While women had a record year in the 2018 midterm elections, bringing their total numbers in Congress to 127, much of the data is still grim. For every woman across both chambers, there are roughly three men. And the split along party lines is even starker. Thirty-eight percent of Democratic lawmakers are currently women, while just 8 percent of Republicans are.

By international standards, it’s downright embarrassing. America currently ranks 76th of 193 countries in women’s representation, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. That ranking is actually lower than two decades ago, as other countries have improved on this measure while the US has stagnated.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Political experts say there are key reforms that could significantly reduce the country’s existing gender disparities — and we know they’re effective because other places have already tried them. Some, like a quota system, would be harder to implement, while others, like a shift to ranked-choice voting, have already picked up momentum.

Achieving gender parity in Congress isn’t just a matter of international pride or identity politics. A more representative government, as research has repeatedly shown, has real effects on improving the lives of women. A study from Georgetown University professor Michele Swers found that liberal women in Congress sponsored far more bills related to women’s health than their male counterparts. Female lawmakers, backed, on average, 10.6 bills related to the subject, roughly double the number supported by their male colleagues.

If America is serious about getting more women into Congress, here’s how it could be done.

Use a quota system

The quickest way to get to gender parity is to require it.

“If you could do anything ... and be really transformative, the thing to do would be to adopt a quota policy,” says Diana O’Brien, a political science professor at Texas A&M University who focuses on the intersection of gender and politics.

Quotas are now used in some capacity by half the countries in the world — including in many of those that currently rank above the US when it comes to gender parity. In places that have imposed a quota, like Tanzania and Rwanda, anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of representatives in the country’s federal legislature are legally required to be women. It’s a mandate that works.

While not all quotas have been equally effective (and some stop short of increasing women’s actual influence over policy), a 2018 paper in the Journal of Politics found that quota systems, on average, contributed to the doubling of women’s representation in federal legislatures from 10 percent to 20 percent. In places that had implemented quotas — and saw more women take office as a result — there was also a notable increase in funding and focus directed toward public health. For every 1 percent increase in women in the legislature, researchers found a 0.06 percent increase in spending on health care, and in some places, a commensurate decline in spending on defense.

Quotas often take the form of either an amendment to a country’s constitution or the passage of a new law. In Rwanda, a 2003 amendment to the country’s constitution reserved 30 percent of the seats in its legislature for women. Today, 64 percent of its parliament is made up of women, up from 18 percent in the 1990s. In Belgium, a 2002 law required political parties to run a certain number of women on the ballot. Since the implementation of its quota laws, women’s representation in its parliament has grown from 16 percent to 40 percent.

The prime place to enact this could be in the Senate, O’Brien told Vox. An amendment to the Constitution or new legislation could mandate that every state elect at least one female senator, for example. The House is slightly more challenging since districts only have one representative, but half the seats in the lower chamber could also be effectively “reserved” for women.

Actually imposing a quota of this kind would likely be tough, and face significant legal opposition. According to a paper from the William & Mary Law Review, it’s unclear if Congress, which has regulatory oversight of federal elections, has the legal authority to pass a law establishing a quota system.

Plus, if lawmakers wanted to go the constitutional amendment route, they would need the approval of two-thirds of both the House and the Senate, as well as three-quarters of states, a long shot for something that’s expected to be quite controversial.

Quotas, after all, have also been criticized for being anti-democratic, and anti-meritocratic. Those who push back on such claims argue that the existing underrepresentation of a large swath of the population is anti-democratic in itself. They also point to a study of Swedish quotas that found that the implementation of gender quotas saw more qualified women take office and actually improved the quality of the male politicians.

Parties could voluntarily implement a version of the quota system as well. Who wins a primary is often up to voters, rather than party leaders, but they could self-impose recruiting requirements, making sure there are women competing in each viable primary.

However, it would require both parties to be on board for it to really work. The lopsided commitment to gender parity from Democrats and Republicans in the US is, ultimately, a major reason progress has been so sluggish. While emerging leaders in the Republican Party, like Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York’s 21st District, have made recruiting more women a priority, the GOP as a whole has been less focused on this goal compared to Democrats, due to its aversion to anything tied to so-called identity politics.

“Republicans are far less likely to believe in group rights or identity politics,” says Jennifer Lawless, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. “Structurally, the biggest challenge that needs to be met is to provide incentives to the Republican Party.”

One of the biggest incentives to Republicans, Lawless notes, is the risk the party faces in losing independent women, a major voter demographic. In moderate districts and purple states, the hemorrhaging of such voters could prompt Republicans to place more focus on gender equity.

Increase public financing for campaigns

A second reform would address one of the biggest challenges that many candidates face when running for office: raising money.

Political action committees, or organizations that use funds to advance different campaigns, have historically poured a ton of money into elections. In 2018 alone, the top PACs spent more than $50 million on the midterm elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They’ve also historically underfunded women, especially on the Republican side.

There’s one idea that’s been raised to simultaneously dilute the influence of these PACs and promote underrepresented candidates: expanding public financing.

Public financing simply means an increase in funding for political candidates offered by the government. In order to receive this government support, candidates often have to commit to limits on their campaign spending and caps on the types of donations they receive.

Public financing can take a few different forms. There are block grant programs, in which the government provides all the funding a candidate needs for a particular race. There are matching programs, in which candidates agree to accept small-dollar donations, and the government will match the funds they raise. And there are voucher programs, in which the government gives the public what’s effectively “free money” to donate to the candidate of their choice.

Although the research about the effects of public financing programs is ongoing, there is early evidence to suggest that it allows a wider range of voters to contribute to a campaign, and ultimately elect a more diverse slate of lawmakers who don’t need to rely on PACs for money.

New York City, where the government will match candidate donations sixfold (up to every $175 donation), for example, has seen strong results, according to the Campaign Legal Center:

Since New York City first enacted public financing, city voters have elected the first African-American mayor, and the first Asian-American, Dominican-American, and African-American woman to city council. For the first time in thirty years, a third-party candidate won a seat on city council.

According to a report from the Center for American Progress, multiple states that have robust public financing programs including Arizona, Minnesota, and Maine also have a higher proportion of women in their state legislatures. Public financing can convince more candidates to run, since it guarantees a degree of financial support. Additionally, it means that candidates are less reliant on big-money donors.

Building up more public financing systems likely won’t be enough, for now. While a public financing option for presidential elections currently exists, there is none at the federal level for congressional races. Multiple bills, including the Fair Elections Now Act, have been raised, though they have yet to become law. And even if this support were to exist, candidates in particularly competitive races may opt out of this option, because it would force them to limit the number of private donations they could receive, in addition to their total spending.

A more immediate lever, then, could be to ramp up pressure on PACs and private donors and push them to give to women.

Emily’s List has provided one of the most effective models of this approach for Democrats, while Winning for Women, a GOP PAC, says it’s laser-focused on doing the same for Republican women in 2020. “Twenty in 20. We want to see the number of [Republican] women in total in the House back up to 20,” Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokesperson for Winning for Women, told Vox. (Republicans had 23 women in the House during the previous congressional term, though they’ve since seen their ranks drop to 13.)

Change the way we vote

A third reform that could play a major role in propelling more women into office is already being implemented in a handful of local and state elections, in places like Maine and San Francisco: ranked-choice voting.

This idea enables people to rank a slate of candidates from their top choice to their least favorite — rather than selecting just one candidate, as Americans do now.

If ranked-choice voting were implemented in the Democratic primary, for example, instead of picking a single candidate, voters would be able to rank a set of them. A voter who preferred Sen. Elizabeth Warren could still rank Sen. Kamala Harris second and Sen. Bernie Sanders third.

When the votes are tallied, if no candidate has accrued more than 50 percent of the vote, the candidate who has the fewest first-choice votes is removed. Those votes then go to each voter’s second choice. This process is repeated until one candidate secures a majority of the vote.

As Lee Drutman writes for Vox, ranked choice has been adopted by 20 cities and was first used by Maine for its statewide and federal elections in 2018.

Voting this way means that voters will typically be nudged into getting to know more candidates, and candidates, too, will be pushed into campaigning across broader constituencies. Because of how it’s set up, ranked choice can have positive effects on diversifying representation, it turns out.

These elections often wind up being less negative, which can spur more women to run. Additionally, since voters get to choose among a broad set of candidates, they don’t have to worry about “the electability question” or splitting the vote, a feature that could make them more likely to weigh traditionally underrepresented candidates.

“In the cities where you see ranked-choice voting, there’s double the women on the city councils. There’s 40 percent more women mayors; it also adds more people of color,” says Erin Vilardi, the founder of VoteRunLead, an organization focused on recruiting women to pursue office. It’s worth noting that many cities that have implemented this practice are also progressive hubs that have historically boosted women candidates more than other places.

“The data is so clear and it’s unimpeachable. More diverse women are going to get elected, and it’s going to pick up steam,” argues Cynthia Terrell, the founder of RepresentWomen.

Ranked-choice voting also has relatively low barriers to implementation. In Maine, it was approved via a ballot measure by its residents in 2016 and was first used last year — demonstrating how quickly cities, and even states, can begin making changes that help improve their elected representation.

Ultimately, achieving gender parity in Congress is only seen as a slog because it’s being treated like one. Practically speaking, if both parties and the American public had the political will, it could happen in the next decade.

“In order to bring about gender parity in Congress, we’re talking about identifying another 100 women who can win elections,” Lawless emphasizes. “In 2020 or 2022, we should be able to do this at the congressional level.”





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