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Does funding help encourage women to run for legislative office?

Research explains when political financing works — and when it doesn’t

Shelia Michelli casts her ballot during primary voting at Belle View Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., on June 8. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Early voting is opening in Virginia and Democrats are determined to retain control of the legislature. In the first state elections since President Biden took office and Texas adopted the most restrictive abortion law in the nation, 50 of 97 Democratic nominees are women.

Many female nominees are backed by seed money from political organizations dedicated to fight for more diversity in elected office. Such programs have helped female candidates winning seats before. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), before she became a member of Congress, was recruited by Justice Democrats, an organization that offered her training, a platform and some campaign funding.

But that’s unusual. In the United States and across the globe, political power is heavily skewed toward the rich. Structural barriers make it almost impossible for women from working-class backgrounds — like Ocasio-Cortez — to win public office.

People around the world have increasingly been protesting a slide toward a “rich man’s world,” in which economic and political power intersect. From Occupy Wall Street to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), from Brexit to France’s “yellow vests,” protesters are questioning the power of rich White men. When some groups of citizens have more access to elected office than others, it threatens the health of a democracy.

Some governments, parties and organizations are trying to undo the “rich man’s bias” in politics. One tool is called “gendered electoral financing,” in which governments or organizations use political financing to boost the numbers of women in elected office. In some cases, they support women who run for office or the political parties that promote them. In other cases, they penalize parties whose candidates are disproportionately male.

We studied the use of gendered financing in 31 national legislative elections in 17 countries. We found out which tools are most effective in correcting the underrepresentation of women, and what helps female candidates win.

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Supporting women from the bottom up or from the top down

When and how does gender-targeted campaign financing increase the proportion of women in office? We discovered two approaches.

In the first approach, independent groups — women’s groups, political action committees or parties — financially support female candidates’ campaigns, which also makes it cheaper for parties to back them in elections. In the United States, Emily’s List encourages women to run, vets them as candidates, donates directly to their campaigns and encourages its members to donate to these women independently. Justice Democrats is a group aimed at pushing the Democratic Party further left by funding working-class female candidates. In Japan, the WIN WIN! initiative copied the Emily’s List approach, intending to fight an old boys’ network through grass-roots support. In Ghana, political parties decided to charge women lower filing fees than men to enter their party primaries, to improve gender balance.

Second is “top-down” financing. Here, governments enact laws and regulations that reward parties financially for backing female candidates or penalize those that do not meet candidate gender quotas, which require parties to have at least a minimum proportion of female candidates. While these quotas do help women get elected, it is usually below the formal quota, given how complex primaries can be. Governments penalize parties that do not reach the quota. In France, Ireland and South Korea, governments impose fines on those parties; in Chile, the government rewards parties that succeed.

Here’s what these two approaches have in common: Some entity uses funding either to motivate more women to run for office or to convince parties that running female candidates won’t be more costly. We studied mechanisms that focus on parties because researchers have already found party backing is critical for winning political office and that backing is more important for women than for men.

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So when does gendered electoral financing actually increase the proportion of women in legislatures?

First, both top-down and bottom-up financing can improve gender balance in legislatures, but the top-down approach is much more straightforward, particularly when funding incentives are attached to gender quotas. However, the size of the fine matters.

After the French government imposed a gender quota with a symbolic fine in 2002, only 12 percent of those winning a seat in the national parliament were women. Not until the penalties increased did the numbers of female representatives also increase — reaching 27 percent in 2012, and after penalties increased even more, 39 percent in 2017.

In Malawi, the road to gender balance has been patchier. In three consecutive elections, from 2009 to 2019, international donors funded a bottom-up process through payments that supported female candidates’ campaigns. That didn’t help much in 2014, when there was a dip in women’s presence in the national legislature. However, in 2019 the number of women went up again.

Second, top-down financing combined with gender quotas is a particularly successful strategy when the election system uses proportional representation — in other words, when, instead of individual districts, each party wins the same proportion of seats in the legislature as the proportion of votes it gets in the country or region. However, the proportional representation system might not be critical. Both France and Malawi have a winner-takes-all system much like that of the United States. In 2017, Italy switched from a proportional representation system to a mixed-member electoral system, adding a government reward to parties that surpassed the gender quota — and in its next parliamentary elections in 2018, the proportion of female legislators jumped from 28 percent to 36 percent.

Third, bottom-up approaches can be successful even without gender quotas, but not everywhere and at a slower pace. In the United States, there has been a slow but steady increase in the number of women elected to Congress, without big leaps. However, our research shows that when women make up least 15 percent of legislatures, they develop networks that their parties can use to recruit more women.

Funding affects political behavior

Seed money may motivate people of different socioeconomic backgrounds to run for office. But our research shows that legislatures make great strides when governments impose gender quotas on the parties and use public funding to reward compliance.

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Ragnhild Muriaas is a professor of political science at University of Bergen, Norway.

Amy G. Mazur is CO Johnson Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Washington State University.

Season Hoard is associate professor of political science at Washington State University.