South Carolina is holding a special election to fill a vacant US House seat. The election is drawing national attention, in part because Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, sister of “Comedy Central’s” Stephen Colbert, may face Republican Mark Sanford, the former governor whose extramarital affair made headlines in 2009.
The election highlights South Carolina’s dismal record in electing women. The state has never elected a woman to the US Senate and hasn’t elected a woman to the House in two decades. Before electing a woman to the state Senate last year, South Carolina was the only state with an all-male legislative chamber.
Unfortunately, the rest of the country isn’t much better. With men holding 82 per cent of House seats, the United States ranks behind 91 other nations in its percentage of women in the national legislature. Only five governors are women, and women’s 24 per cent share of state legislative seats is barely higher than it was 20 years ago.
It’s time for new strategies to crack the glass ceiling for women in elected office. As a start, parties should be more pro-active in supporting women candidates. South Carolina Democrats already regularly nominate women, but without more female Republican nominees, women’s representation will fall short in such a heavily Republican state.
Sweden provides an example of how party rules can boost women’s representation. In the United States, both the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee already require gender parity in their selection of party leaders. The RNC, for example, requires women to hold several key executive positions and reserves positions for a man and a woman from every state and territory.
State parties should form committees tasked with recruiting and training women candidates, funded in part by local party arms when they fail to recruit an equitable number of female candidates. But gender-conscious party rules can only go so far. As in many states, from Massachusetts’ all-Democratic delegation to Oklahoma’s all-Republican one, South Carolina’s congressional representation poorly reflects the state’s voters.
Women candidates do better in multi-seat districts because parties tend to recruit more women candidates. Six of the 10 state legislatures with the highest percentages of women legislators have multi-seat districts. Internationally, 19 of the 20 countries with the highest percentages of women in their national legislatures use multi-seat districts with fair voting rules (and the 20th, Cuba, doesn’t hold multi-party elections). If South Carolina had a fair voting system with three representatives elected from one district and four from the other, winning a seat would take about a quarter of the vote.
Regardless of what happens in South Carolina’s special election this spring, we need a more enduring “Colbert bump” for women’s representation. Let’s come together to overcome barriers to equitable representation.