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How Can We Get More Women Elected?

by Cynthia Terrell

Good morning! Itís nice to be here at such a remarkable gathering.

I believe itís essential that we must run effectively as women candidates. Though many voters have historically been reluctant to support women and other nontraditional candidates the tide is changing. Some polls indicate that voters actually trust women to be more honest and hard-working -- a trend which women candidates must capitalize on.

Let me give you an example. I worked Iowa on a campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment during the much-touted "year of the woman" -- if you remember that was back in 1992 -- where a strong woman state senator named Jean Lloyd Jones was running for the U.S. Senate. At that time, there were only two women in the Senate, so being a woman was a real plus. The problem was with her yard signs, bumper stickers and other publicity. They simply said.... "Lloyd Jones". The casual voter may not even have known she was a woman! She did not win that race.

I spent the years between college graduation and having my first child working on political campaigns. I worked on races for the presidency, senate, house, governor, legislatures and that hard fought race for a state ERA in Iowa.

During these years I saw first-hand the obstacles women and other non traditional candidates face in getting elected to public office.

To illustrate my point Iíll use myself as an example.

I always planned to run for office, in fact when asked in my interviews for college acceptance what I wanted to do with my life I responded without hesitation "run for president". I certainly believed at that point that with my middle class background and well-healed diplomas in my pocket the path to elected office would be easy.

But I havenít run for elected office and here is why:

  • I spent my professional career, as so many women do, helping other people learn to be good candidates and win campaigns. But that didnít necessarily translate into having the political viability needed for being nominated by a party to run for office. Those who are nominated have usually been brought up in the system and are willing to serve it faithfully. I was not particularly interested in that system.
     
  • As we all know running for political office takes a lot of money. More money than most single, young women have access to.
     
  • Additionally, running for office within the confines of the current winner-take-all system with its incredibly high reelection rate means very limited choices and very negative campaigns. Running in this context is about entering a FIGHT not a RACE, and I, like a number of women I know, donít want to stoop that low.
     
  • And of course there are the family and lifestyle questions. Campaigns are notoriously grueling, often ugly and very time consuming. Many women who like me are the primary care-givers -- either for their children or their parents -- canít or wonít make the sacrifice it would take to run for office.
     
  • Men simply donít face that kind of choice as often, if at all. While things are changing, men still have more freedom to pursue their dreams than we do as women.

Finally, the thing that keeps me, and I presume all those other qualified women from running for office, is that the rules of the political game are unfair and outdated. Think about it, they were established over two hundred years ago and itís time they changed. The laws governing our elections have changed little since slavery was a given and the vote for women was not. Single-member geographic representation made sense when voters on the eastern shore of Maryland, for example, shared like-minded concerns and interests. But times are different. Voters in the carefully shaped congressional districts are enormously diverse. It seems ridiculous to think that we still elect one person and charge them with representing 600,000 individuals of different classes, races, genders, professions and political affiliations. The single member district psychology provides few choices and discourages the participation of nontraditional candidates.

We all are familiar with the statistics on how low the U.S. ranks in the representation of women compared to Sweden, Germany, Norway, Scotland, Finland, Denmark, South Africa, Mexico... and the list just goes on and on. And of course women donít fair much better in the legislative bodies of our states, towns and cities.

Have you ever wondered why the United States lists 43rd in a world-wide ranking of women elected to higher office? Well, I have....

There are probably a number of factors but a huge factor, arguably the most important, is that those other countries (like nearly every country in the world -- particularly the new democracies) have proportional voting systems.

These PR systems come in many forms but they are based on the principle that groups of like minded voters can win seats in proportion to their share of the vote. When a womanís party formed and ran candidates in Iceland a few years ago, it won its fair share of seats right from the start. But here, a womanís party like the 21st century party - one that many feminists wanted to form a decade ago -- faces near-insurmountable obstacles to any success until we adopt PR.

A good case study for comparison are those countries which have a mixed system in which half of the legislative body is elected from single-winner district seats -- like our congressional seats and state legislatures -- while the other half or part is elected from parties which list their candidates (often alternating by gender) before-hand and can win seats with as little as 5% of the vote. Parties win seats in proportion to their share of the electorate.

Not surprisingly, women comprise a much greater percentage of the party list seats than the single-member district seats. It is also the case that womenís parties are viable and thriving in a number of European democracies and their influence on the more traditional parties is significant. Even in countries without distinct womenís parties, women as voters have more power because the parties cannot take any votes for granted if they are to retain their seats.

As long as we have a system that gives 100% of the representation to candidates who win only 51% of the vote I donít believe there will be real gender equity in our legislative bodies. Proportional systems allow voters greater meaningful choices and politicians greater ability to enact meaningful legislation.

Thanks to the example of the many, many nations which have proportional systems we have some obvious answers to that often asked question -- "how can we get more women elected?"

I should add that there is a growing movement for proportional systems in this country. Delores Huerta and Ellie Smeal joined many others in being founding members of the Center for Voting and Democracy -- which has a booth here, at Exhibit 330, and is working to break down the barriers in our political system and provide more nontraditional candidates with an opportunity to run and win in a kinder, gentler and fairer political system.

 
 
 
 
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