By Cynthia Richie Terrell on November 29, 2013
Home to four of our nation’s first five presidents, Virginia was an early leader in American democracy. Today it holds a less noble position: worst in the nation in electing women to office.
This abysmal record starts at the top. Virginia has never elected a woman as governor or U.S. senator, and only one woman — Mary Sue Terry, elected and reelected attorney general in 1985 and 1989, respectively — has ever won statewide office. Men hold all 11 of the state’s congressional seats, and only three women have ever been elected to the U.S. House in the state. Women have never held even a fifth of Virginia’s state legislative seats.
The 2013 elections offered little chance for improvement. All six of the major-party nominees for statewide office were men, and only 31 of the 143 major-party nominees for the House of Delegates were women. This January, just 23 of Virginia’s 140 state legislators will be women, meaning that men will hold 84 percent of the seats. And none of Virginia’s five largest cities has a female mayor.
Clearly, this is not a very good record, but how do we know it’s the worst? To compare the proportion of men and women in elected office in each state, our organization, Representation 2020, which is a project of the election-reform group FairVote, created a “parity index.” The index uses a weighted formula to quantify gender equality in federal, state and local elections, with statewide elected offices counting the most. A score of 50 reflects parity, which we define as state offices being equally likely to be held by men and women. All 50 states lean toward men (the District wasn’t included because of its lack of equivalent elections). The average state has a score of 82 for men and 18 for women.
Virginia’s women have a score of only 4.5. That rating is far below those of neighboring states Maryland (21.2) and North Carolina (29.4). Even West Virginia, where two women will likely face off next year as the major parties’ nominees for the Senate, has a score of 11.
It is time for Virginia to take aggressive steps to elect more women. We recommend greater attention to rules and structures that affect election outcomes.
For example, political parties should aggressively recruit women to run in statewide, congressional and legislative races.
Also, Virginia should change its electoral structure. Over the past two election cycles, more than half of the races for the House of Delegates have been uncontested. Fundamental to this electoral malaise are single-member districts, in which voters from each district elect only one legislator.
Voters would gain far more power if Virginia were to switch to having 20 legislative districts, with each electing five seats, in which case winning a seat would require taking about a fifth of the vote in each district. Such multi-seat district systems open up politics for all voters and candidates, including women. Indeed, a majority of the 10 top states for women’s representation in state legislatures use multi-member districts.
Inaction is simply unacceptable. A century after earning the right to vote, Virginia’s women deserve an equal number of seats at the table of government.
The writers are coordinators of Representation 2020.