It is no secret that women are underrepresented in American politics. We have never had a female president of the United States and women make up just 24 percent of Congress, 18 percent of America’s governors and 26 percent of state legislatures. And those who may think that local offices are the solution have thus far seen those hopes unrealized as women make up just 21 percent of mayors and comprise similar proportions of county commissions.
While these data may leave little hope for even the most optimistic, the 2018 election suggested that maybe there was a silver lining for those who seek a more representative government. Running on the backs of the “blue wave” of 2018, women inched up in the representational calculus—adding 256 state legislative seats and 28 congressional seats over the previous year. Scholars, as they are want to do, debate the causes of this wave, but all recognize that the historic representation of female candidates was a function not only of voting behavior, but of supply. Simply put, more women were elected to office because more women ran for office.
The question remains whether 2018’s “year of the woman” will inspire more women to run for office in the future. If we accept (and the scholarly literature as well as common sense would suggest that we should) that more women in office is a good thing for democracy, then regardless of partisanship, we should want to see more women running for office in 2019.
Now I know what you may be thinking—2019 isn’t an election year. And to some degree, that’s true. This is not an “on-cycle” election year, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t electing anyone in 2019. In fact, there are 564 people running for a variety of offices in Western North Carolina, including mayor, city council, county soil and water commission, and county boards of education. Whoever wins these elections, they will make a bevy of decisions that affect our utilities, schools, roads, and lands.
Unfortunately, the list of declared candidates in WNC doesn’t suggest much change from the past in terms of the potential for more equal gender representation in our region. Slightly more than one-fifth of candidates running for office in 2019 from WNC are women—similar to the current distribution of female representation in local government. When it comes to executive offices in local government in WNC, the numbers are even worse—less than 17 percent of people running for mayor in WNC in 2019 are women.
While this rather average number of women running for office doesn’t bode well for an increase in female representation in our region, it doesn’t mean that we won’t see any change.
Local elections in off-years such as 2019 have notoriously low turnout. That means that it’s a lot easier to sway the results of an election than it would be in a presidential or on-cycle election where turnout is expected to be high. A concerted effort to elect more women at the local level could therefore stand a greater chance of success in 2019 than it might in 2020.
Stacking the farm-team of future politicians with more female representation can only increase the possibility that today’s local representation will be followed by tomorrow’s greater representation at higher offices. So, you are searching for a more representative government, there’s no better time to start than 2019.
Christopher Cooper is the Robert Lee Madison Distinguished Professor and head of the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University.