The NCSL Blog


By Mark Wolf

The nation’s state legislators are an imperfect reflection of the nation they represent.

Kira Sanbonmatsu and South Dakota Representative Kristin Conzet were panelists during the 'Who Governs' session. Photo by Angie LucasThat’s the conclusion of “Who We Elect,” a new joint survey from NCSL and Pew Charitable Trusts released Thursday at NCSL’s Capitol Forum in Washington, D.C. The report appears in the December issue of State Legislatures magazine

“NCSL has been collecting this data since 1976. We’ve done this every six to 10 years since then. In 2009 we expanded it substantially and thanks to funding from Pew this is the most comprehensive one NCSL has ever done,” said Karl Kurtz, project lead, NCSL consultant and recently retired director of NCSL’s Trust for Representative Democracy.

The study shows women and minorities in legislatures have increased over time but remain below their share of the national population. Since 1971 women have increased sixfold, blacks have more than doubled and Hispanics have continued to grow.

However, women make up only 24 percent of legislators and their numbers have leveled off since 2009. African Americans, who hold 13 percent of the U.S. population, make up 9 percent of state legislators. Hispanics, who hold 5 percent of legislative seats, make up 17 percent of the U.S. population.

Stateline, a daily news and analysis site produced by Pew, published stories this week based on the results.

“In 2015 we found female candidates were just as likely to win as males. The challenge is getting women to run,” said Stateline editor Scott Greenberger. “What we heard in talking to female and male legislators is that party leaders tend to be less likely to recruit female candidates. It might be self-perpetuating. People in the legislature go to their own connections who more often than not will be people like them.”

Kira Sanbonmatsu, political science professor at Rutgers and senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, also said recruitment was crucial to electing more women to legislatures.

“What we find is that women are much more likely than men to say they ran for the first time because someone made the suggestion that they run. Men are more likely to have thought about it for a long time,” she said.

There has also been a perception, she said, that women tend to run for open seats, especially those previously held by other women.

The party gap also plays a significant role. Women hold 34 percent of Democratic seats but only 17 percent of Republican seats.

“It didn’t use to be like this,” she said. “Republican women used to be advantaged in the late 1970s. That (present 24 percent) plateau seems to be driven mostly by Republican women. That’s a big difference.”

In the end, does it make a difference if lawmakers’ demographics don’t match their constituents’?

“It seems to me,” said Kurtz, “that it’s important to point out that this kind of descriptive representation is not the only way to measure representation because the real test is not whether I am a white male from a white male district. The test is that if I’m a white male representing a majority minority or whatever, do I listen to what my constituents have to say and do I try to respond to their concerns and do I fairly represent them?”

Mark Wolf is the editor of the NCSL Blog.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.