The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The striking lack of diversity in state legislatures

Let's start off with some numbers. Minorities make up almost 40 percent of the U.S. population, yet they fill less than a quarter of congressional and state offices.

This isn't necessarily a revelation. People have highlighted the lack of diversity in Congress for several years now. The 114th Congress, which was sworn in this month, is the most diverse on record and, yet, the Pew Research Center finds that all minority groups are underrepresented. About 35 percent of the nation’s black population is represented by a congressional representative who is black. Hispanics make up 17 percent of the U.S. population but just 7.8 percent in the House and 3 percent in the Senate; Asian Americans make up 5.8 percent of the U.S. population yet just 3 percent in the House and 1 percent in the Senate.

But what really concerns people who advocate for more diversity in politics is something else: the lack of diversity at the state level. Statehouses are some of the best and most reliable pipelines for national politics. About three-fourths of lawmakers in Congress got their jobs after holding political office in their states.

And yet just 14 percent of those potential future federal lawmakers are minorities. That's less than the 17 percent currently in Congress.

If politics at the state level isn't representative of America, it makes it that much harder for the next level to be.

The New American Leaders Project, a nonpartisan group advocating for more first- and second-generation immigrants in politics, came out with a report Monday highlighting that gap. The report finds the largest two immigrant groups in America — Asian Americans and Latinos — make up 20 percent of the U.S. population and yet less than 6 percent of all state legislators.

"The notion that demographics is destiny, I think, is a little misguided," said Sayu Bhojwani, president and founder of the New American Leaders Project. "Without any interventions, power is going to stay in the hands of the people who've always had it."

The report finds that current Asian American and Latino state lawmakers envision themselves as office-holders less frequently than their colleagues, and they reported having to be asked to run by someone else in greater numbers than other politicians. (We reported in December on a similar phenomenon that researchers found for black women, who make up less than 1 percent of statewide executive offices.)

[Meet Jenean Hampton, the first black statewide office holder in Kentucky. And she's a Republican.]

The report calls for much of what you'd think needs to be done to change this: more investment in recruiting minority candidates within the party structures, nonpartisan community groups and organizations such as unions (the latter two of which Asian Americans and Latinos tend to be involved in at higher rates than white Americans and other legislators, the researchers found).

The problem is that Bhojwani doesn't think America is ready to invest in a full-scale intervention to boost minority state lawmakers.

After years of largely ignoring minority groups, she says, political parties are still trying to figure out how to woo them as voters and donors, and not necessarily how to recruit them to run for office. Immigrants are thought to be a key base for Democrats, and Republicans' efforts to win them over are complicated by their current 2016 front-runner, Donald Trump, and his controversial positions on immigration.

Plus, the idea that political parties and nonpartisan groups alike should start actively recruiting minority candidates is all relatively new. The New Americans Leaders Project has been around for five years. The Republican State Leadership Committee, which supports state candidates, started a project for the 2012 cycle to focus on recruiting minorities. The Democrats' arm doesn't have one dedicated to minorities, but a spokeswoman said the organization prioritizes recruiting diverse candidates (and noted that minorities fill the majority of Democratic seats in the Arizona, California, Hawaii and Nevada statehouses).

And yet, as more and more organizations focus on active recruitment of minority candidates, we may find that the homogeneous nature of our current political bodies is creating a chicken-and-egg scenario. Bhojwani's research indicates that potential minority voters and candidates are often disenchanted by the lack of politicians who represent them and their community.

"If I'm never being asked to vote, if there aren't any candidates reflecting my interests, Bhojwani said, "it stands to reason that I might not participate" in any part of the political process.

In 2016, we still have a lot of barriers to get over to make our political bodies look like the rest of America. But you know what they say — recognizing there's a problem is the first step to fixing it.