Research by Danny Hayes and Jennifer Lawless highlights an important truth: voter bias is not the reason women are 51% of the population but only 29% of elected officeholders. Our research reveals the same finding: When women appear on the ballot, voters choose them at the same rate they choose men. This is very good news.
But one could only conclude that “systemic gender bias” is absent in political campaigns by ignoring the complex and entrenched system that determines who gets on the ballot in the first place.
America’s candidate pool isn’t determined by voters, but by entrenched gatekeepers who happen to be mostly white men. Not surprisingly, they tend to favor their own: our research found that in 2012 and 2014, candidates for office in general elections up and down the ballot were 73% male and 90% white — virtually identical to the people in elected office. Significantly, well over half of incumbents run un-opposed — and 61% of those incumbents are white men.
Are women simply choosing not to run for office? Having just spent three months traveling around the country meeting with female community leaders, candidates, and officeholders in Atlanta, Seattle, Chicago, Denver, Missoula and Raleigh, I can assure you that’s not the case. In every meeting, the same theme emerged: long before they even spoke to a voter, these women had to contend with the powerful but often invisible system that chooses the names on our ballots.
That system is rife with obstacles for women and people of color in particular. Party leaders who always found the white male more “viable;” major donors with longstanding ties to the guys they knew seeking office; incumbent opponents with all the advantages incumbency confers — and that’s just naming a few. The meetings reminded me how valuable an intersectional lens can be. When it comes to explaining the distribution of power in American politics, women and people of color face similar challenges, and making our democracy truly democratic requires us to address the systemic realities both groups face.
Is there bias in politics that maintains our current status quo, in which white men hold four times the political power of everyone else? As long as getting elected requires money by the truckload, and powerful gatekeepers instead of communities decide who’s running for office, the clear answer is “yes.” Hayes and Lawless drop a hint that they agree, urging “party leaders, donors and activists who recruit candidates” not to write off women for fear the voters won’t choose them. Odd, then, that they blame public perception for why people think the system is stacked against women. Perhaps the public is perceiving a deeper truth. Voters, in fact, want more women in office. But they can’t vote for candidates who aren’t there.