Despite the growing diversity within the U.S. population, 90 percent of elected officials are white, and most are male, a study finds. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Women who were inspired by Hillary Clinton’s historic presidential bid or furious that she lost to President Trump are running for office in larger numbers in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections. But most of them face formidable odds because of long-standing practices and attitudes that are more favorable to men, a new study finds.
The Reflective Democracy Campaign study, which was released Tuesday, finds that despite the growing diversity within the U.S. population, 90 percent of elected officials, from the local to the national level, are white, and most are male. Even in some jurisdictions in which the majority of the residents are people of color, the elected leadership is dominated by whites. The Reflective Democracy Campaign, a project of the nonpartisan Women Donors Network, does research and provides funding to efforts working to increase diversity in politics.
The report’s authors point to gatekeepers — political parties and outside groups that provide financial and logistical support to candidates — as more often working to maintain the status quo than helping to elect candidates more reflective of their communities. Political activists working to elect more women and people of color to public office voice similar complaints about lack of support.
“Politics is not the kind of open, competitive playing field we’d like to think of it as. It’s more like trying to be inducted into a fraternity,” Brenda Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign. “I think the number one problem is the political parties and other gatekeepers who choose candidates. I always say the parties are like hiring committees, and they’re doing a really bad job of presenting voters with a range of candidates who look like the American people.”
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The consequences of a government that doesn’t reflect the demographics of its constituents is a lack of accountability, the report concludes. “The demographics of power are why an all-male Senate Committee was in charge of women’s health. They’re why a nearly all-white commission is making critical decisions about the ever-more fragile voting rights of African Americans and other Americans of color,” the report stated, referring to a GOP effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and a group appointed by Trump to investigate his claims of widespread voting fraud.
Incumbents running unopposed are another barrier to increasing diversity among elected officials, the report found, because 60 percent of those who run unchallenged are white men. The report said a particular area of concern is county-level elected officials, where it estimates “62 percent of races have only one candidate giving voters no say in who leads them.” Not only do these officials make decisions that affect residents more directly and immediately, these positions also are steppingstones for higher offices.
Both political parties are faulted. The report states that nationwide “the whiteness of the GOP can be accurately described as blinding: 97% of its politicians are white.” It also estimates that 96 percent of its candidates are white. But the Democratic Party, while more diverse, still lags far behind in having officeholders and candidates who reflect the country’s racial diversity. “Democrats in office are 73% white, and the party’s candidate pipeline trails in diversity: only 21% of Democrats seeking office are of color,” the report states.
Similarly among women, Democrats fare better, making up 35 percent of its elected officials. But with women comprising 51 percent of the country’s population, it’s a long way from parity. The report estimates that 76 percent of Republican elected officials are men. “But with both major parties heavily favoring men over women when they choose candidates, neither party can claim to be an engine of change,” the report stated. Among independent candidates, the report estimates that 86 percent are white and 79 percent are male. This study is a follow up to a 2014 study that called attention to the imbalance between the county’s demographics and its elected leaders.
The Republican National Committee, which is currently led by a woman, Ronna McDaniel, “is as committed as ever to involving a diverse and wide-ranging group of people in the process and teaching them how to be leaders in their community through the Republican Leadership Initiative (RLI),” spokeswoman Cassie Smedile said.
The report’s findings echo those of other researchers. A Pew Research analysis earlier this year reported that African Americans, Hispanics, Asian and Pacific Islander and Native Americans make up 19 percent of the current Congress, but are 38 percent of the country’s population. Women make up 19 percent of congressional members, far below their 51 percent of the U.S. population.
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Kelly Dittmar, a political-science professor and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, said the center also has found that party rules and leadership are a concern for women wanting to run for office.
She also said that incumbency and the way districts are drawn for legislative and congressional offices also pose big hurdles for women candidates. She said the center has definitely seen an increase in women preparing to run for office in 2018 compared to 2016.
The trend “is really positive, but the incumbency and redistricting problems mean a lot of these women are going to be running uphill battles, whether in the primary or general election,” she said. Still, she added, it is important to invest in women candidates and work at removing barriers to women running for office.
One of the biggest hurdles, for women and people of color who want to run for office, is money. Quentin James, co-founder of the Collective PAC, which recruits and supports progressive black candidates, said it is difficult to compete with the fundraising networks of white candidates.
He pointed to a congressional candidate in Pennsylvania, Paul Perry, who recently dropped out of the Democratic primary after falling far behind in the race for cash. The 32-year-old former teacher garnered attention when he entered the race because of his compelling personal narrative: After his mother, who struggled with drug addiction, was unable to care for him, he was adopted by a gay couple, both military veterans. But after several months, he has only raised $62,000 — a distant third behind candidates who have raised more than $400,000 and $117,000.
“It’s not a talent gap, it’s a financial gap,” James said. “There’s just a ton of systematic problems, with campaign finance, with institutions not recruiting candidates of color that [candidates] have to overcome.”
He also said that during primary contests the major parties “want to appear to be neutral, but we know that people have their favorites” and often times that doesn’t include African Americans and other candidates of color.
The study’s estimates are based on race and gender data of more than 30,000 candidates across the nation on the Nov. 8, 2016, ballot, and 50,000 elected officials last June. The authors said that race and gender were determined by several methods and might not match 100 percent of the individual candidates and officials included the study.