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The “Biased Electorate” Myth Has Been Debunked Again

The deck is stacked against women and people of color seeking political office. But it's not because of a reactionary electorate — it's because of party elites and donors.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee members Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) (L) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) talk before a hearing on drug pricing in the Rayburn House Office building on Capitol Hill July 26, 2019 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Conventional wisdom on the liberal left holds that bias among voters is so prevalent that it creates a disadvantage at the polls for women and people of color running for office. The numbers, however, beg to differ. In “The Electability Myth,” a new study of the 2018 US election, the Reflective Democracy Campaign (RDC) has found that other groups have a slight advantage over white men among the voters — and systematic disadvantages that have historically kept them off the ballot.

Click here for the study (with some very nice graphs), and click here for a succinct interview with Brenda Choresi Carter, who directs the RDC. There, Carter explains why the majority of officeholders are still white men:

When voters go into the voting booth to vote, they are presented with a ballot that is the result of a long and usually invisible process of selection and support. There are pretty high barriers to entry into politics for everyone, but women and people of color face even higher ones. And, in particular, the problem of political gatekeepers is one that I think even engaged voters often don’t understand, because it’s so invisible.

This dynamic — slight advantages among the public, but major disadvantages among political gatekeepers (like party officials, donors, endorsers, and so on) — has been well understood for some time. Back in 2015, writing for Jacobin about the challenges faced by women in particular, I noted the same thing:

It’s not that sexism doesn’t exist in our elections. Just the opposite: sexism in American elections is so powerful that Americans rarely even get the chance to support women. This problem is pretty obvious to anyone who has actually spent any amount of time trying to put more women in office. Most organizations that make this their mission make recruitment and ballot access their central focus, and it has been this way for decades.

So what does this report tell us that we didn’t already know? Here are a few takeaways.

More data is always better, and the RDC’s study is not just up-to-date — it’s also much more granular, tracking down-ballot races all the way to the county level. This is probably as solid a study of electoral bias as you could get without drilling down into city races (and it seems odd to suppose that popular bias would suddenly emerge on that level).

The general findings, however, haven’t really changed. And more to the point, nothing this report might have said was ever likely to change the way the Discourse talks about elections. The sparring and ruminating over bias among voters that dominates our discourse rarely looks like RDC’s study, of course — it is usually episodic, polemic, or speculative, often quite personal (as opposed to systematic and academic), or engaged in as a form of infotainment. The incentives that drive this behavior have little to do with any informed appreciation of the electoral stakes, so even though we know that women and people of color have net advantages among voters, we will presumably proceed as if they don’t.

There are clearly all kinds of disadvantages that this study did not investigate directly — most notably class. In passing, the closing statement observes that

A number of entrenched barriers continue to protect the starkly unbalanced demographics of political power in America, such as . . . the economic realities of running for and holding office.

Since this study focuses on race and gender, this is not a surprising formulation — but a simpler and more comprehensive way of saying that would be “our electoral system is rigged against people who aren’t wealthy, which also has a disproportionate impact on women and people of color.” A comprehensive study, meanwhile, could break down winning percentages by household wealth; investigate other class-related barriers to success, such as ballot access; and then discuss how these findings relate to (or explain) the findings about race and gender.

Why hasn’t such a study been done? Among other answers, one is pretty obvious: poor people don’t win elections. Still, an empirical demonstration of this point — and substantial elaboration on why — would be edifying.