Despite the growing diversity within the U.S. population, 90 percent of elected officials, from the local to the national level, are white, and most are male, a new study from the Reflective Democracy Campaign finds.

“Politics is not the kind of open, competitive playing field we’d like to think of it as,” says Brenda Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, a project of the nonpartisan Women Donors Network.


What the report concludes

  1. The consequences of a government that doesn’t reflect the demographics of its constituents is a lack of accountability.

“The demographics of power are why an all-male Senate Committee was in charge of women’s health. They’re why a nearly all-white commission is making critical decisions about the ever-more fragile voting rights of African Americans and other Americans of color,” the report stated, referring to a GOP effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and a group appointed by Trump to investigate his claims of widespread voting fraud.

2. Incumbents running unopposed are another barrier to increasing diversity among elected officials, the report found, because 60 percent of those who run unchallenged are white men. A particular area of concern is county-level elected officials, where it estimates “62 percent of races have only one candidate giving voters no say in who leads them.”

White and male

The report states that nationwide, “the whiteness of the GOP can be accurately described as blinding.”

The Democratic Party, while more diverse, still lags far behind in having officeholders and candidates who reflect the country’s racial diversity.

Source: The Reflective Democracy Campaign study
Source: The Reflective Democracy Campaign study

A majority of elected officials in both major parties are also male. Women comprise 51 percent of the country’s population.

Source: The Reflective Democracy Campaign study
Source: The Reflective Democracy Campaign study

Among independent candidates, the report estimates that 86 percent are white and 79 percent are male.

What this means for women

Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, said the center also has found that party rules and leadership are a concern for women wanting to run for office.

She also said that incumbency and the way districts are drawn for legislative and congressional offices also pose big hurdles for women candidates. She said the center has definitely seen an increase in women preparing to run for office in 2018 compared to 2016.

The trend “is really positive, but the incumbency and redistricting problems mean a lot of these women are going to be running uphill battles, whether in the primary or general election,” she said. Still, she added, it is important to invest in women candidates and work at removing barriers to women running for office.

The challenge

One of the biggest hurdles for women and people of color who want to run for office is money. Quentin James, co-founder of the Collective PAC, which recruits and supports progressive black candidates, said it is difficult to compete with the fundraising networks of white candidates.

He pointed to a congressional candidate in Pennsylvania, Paul Perry, who recently dropped out of the Democratic primary after falling far behind in the race for cash. The 32-year-old former teacher garnered attention when he entered the race because of his compelling personal narrative: After his mother, who struggled with drug addiction, was unable to care for him, he was adopted by a gay couple, both military veterans. But after several months, he has only raised $62,000 — a distant third behind candidates who have raised more than $400,000 and $117,000.

“It’s not a talent gap, it’s a financial gap,” James said. “There’s just a ton of systematic problems, with campaign finance, with institutions not recruiting candidates of color that [candidates] have to overcome.”

He also said that during primary contests, the major parties “want to appear to be neutral, but we know that people have their favorites” and often times that doesn’t include African Americans and other candidates of color.