White men make up 31% of the population, yet they hold 65% of elected offices in the United States.
According to data released Wednesday by the Reflective Democracy Campaign, which built a database of over 42,000 elected officials, America’s leaders do not look very much like their constituents. Whites, men and white men dominate elected offices. Women and people of color are massively underrepresented.
Elected politicians in the United States are overwhelmingly white (90%) and male (71%). While men of color make up 19% of the population, they account for only 7% of elected officials. Likewise, women of color are 19% of the population, but hold only 4% of elected offices. White women are proportionally slightly better off: they are 32% of Americans and 25% of elected officials.
The database also revealed that women are slightly more represented at the state and local level – they are a third of county-level office holders and a quarter of state legislators. The reverse is true for people of color who are more represented at the federal level than anywhere else, even though they still only represent 17 percent of federal officials.
The Reflective Democracy Campaign also released the findings of a poll of 800 likely voters, which found that the majority of those polled felt that women and people of color were underrepresented in elected office. What is more, overwhelming majorities of voters across all party identifications (Democrat, Independent, and Republican) supported policies that elect more women and people of color to Congress. The question is admittedly an abstract one and it remains to be seen, as more data from the project is released, what sort of specific policies the public will support.
While a pipeline to leadership and increasing voter turnout are vastly different issues, the connection between who votes and who we vote for remains. Gloria Totten, president of Progressive Majority, a PAC which recruits and trains progressives to run for office across the United States, noted “If you’re a person of color and you can’t even vote, are you going to run for office? There is some reality in the fact there is a ripple effect of regressive policy action in this country that plays into this data.”
Restrictive voting laws are one major culprit. ID requirements, laws that prevent felons from voting, proof of residency statutes, and conservative tactics such as barring same-day voter registration all disproportionately impact communities of color and the working poor who are less likely to own the stringent documentation required to enter the polls.
Less examined is the nature of polling places themselves. Limited hours, long lines, and inconvenient locations could prevent low-wage workers who lack workplace flexibility from taking time off to cast their vote. Currently, there is no federal legislation that protects workers who take needed time off to vote. This leaves women, people of color, and youth who are concentrated in low-income jobs that lack flexible scheduling without the protection they need to engage in civil life. Although some states, such as California, Georgia, and Illinois, laws provide several hours off work to vote, in 2012 more than 10 million voters waited in line for longer than half an hour to cast ballots. And for minimum-wage workers who are not paid for this time off, the lost income amounts to little more than a 21st century poll tax.
Of course, it is precisely this group of racially diverse, young, and working-class voters that are most discouraged from turning out to vote who are the most likely to support progressive candidates and initiatives.
Emily Baxter is a research assistant for Women’s Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress. Jamie Keene is an intern at the Center for American Progress. Adam Peck contributed graphic design to this post.