Magazine article The New Yorker

Voting by Numbers

Magazine article The New Yorker

Voting by Numbers

Article excerpt

VOTING BY NUMBERS

October is to political prognosticators what February is to florists and April is to accountants; namely, the time when a profession that's peripheral to our daily concerns momentarily becomes the center of our attention. This season's forecasting for the midterm elections is largely occupied with the partisan balance of the Senate. (The Times ' Upshot column has it seventy-one per cent likely that the Republicans will gain control. FiveThirtyEight puts the G.O.P.'s odds at sixty-one per cent.) The uncertainty hinges on about ten races that are too close to call, despite the finely calibrated statistical divination of experts. There is, however, one outcome that requires no sophisticated simulations to predict: the Senate will not look like the country. There are currently eighty male senators. Women, who make up fifty-one per cent of the population, hold just twenty per cent of Senate seats. The Senate, notoriously, is not proportional in its representation, but the highest number of seats that women can hope to hold next year will still be fewer than thirty. Currently, three states have two female senators, but thirty-three states are represented by two men.

This kind of imbalance is not limited to the upper chamber of the legislative branch. According to "Who Leads Us," a report issued earlier this month by the Reflective Democracy Campaign, an offshoot of the Women Donors Network, which works to increase the number of female and minority elected officials, the makeup of American politics is still overwhelmingly dissimilar to the demographics of the country. Discussions of the tensions in Ferguson, Missouri, have focussed on the asymmetry between demographics and political leadership there, but, as the report makes clear, this is an issue of degree, not of kind. Ferguson's city council doesn't reflect its electorate, but it does resemble American politics. Whites, who constitute sixty-three per cent of the population, occupy ninety per cent of federal, state, and county-wide elected offices. Men compose forty-nine per cent of the populace but seventy-one per cent of officeholders. New York City is one of the most racially diverse cities in the nation, but whites, who make up thirty-three per cent of the population, hold fifty-one per cent of the seats on the city council. The State Legislature ranks forty-second in gender parity, behind far less liberal states--among them Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi--and forty-fourth in proportionate representation of minorities.

There is something distasteful about the idea of measuring politics in terms of percentages. It carries the whiff of a quota system and suggests that one's interests can be adequately represented only by a kind of political color coordination. Yet nearly a century after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, and forty-nine years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, it remains true that the groups that travelled the most difficult route to enfranchisement are the most underrepresented at every level of government. This situation is at least mildly confounding. A Gallup poll conducted in July found that sixty-three per cent of respondents believed that we would be better off with more women in elected office. (The partisan divide on the question was noteworthy: seventy-five per cent of Democrats agreed with the sentiment; forty-six per cent of Republicans did.)

The fact that underrepresented groups can vote, and do so in substantial numbers (black women had the highest voter turnout of any segment in the country in 2008 and 2012), begs a question: Why aren't there more such candidates? …

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