Rules Matter

Rules matter. Donald Trump won 2.5 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, but will be inaugurated because he won the Electoral College — the rule we employ in the US to elect our Presidents. You can argue that we should change that rule, eradicate the Electoral College, or revise the penalties imposed on electors who choose to buck the system, and I might agree with you. But until we do, the rule stands. This is how we ensure a peaceful transition of power in a functioning democracy: we all play by the same rules.

Similarly, the rules that govern how we elect leaders at other levels of government make it more likely that these positions are held by men (and especially white men).

Quite recently, the US helped rewrite the constitutions in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to shape their democracies. In doing so, we created a rule that all of the parties must ensure that 30% of their representatives are women. Why? Aside from the simple fact that democracy means the perspectives and priorities of all members of the population are represented, there is general recognition and evidence that women improve how said democracies function.

I am just back from a 3-day meeting in Brussels with most of the major US and EU women’s political organizations (and generously hosted by the German Marshall Fund, the Barbara Lee Foundation, and the Women Donors Network). The most important lesson I learned from our EU counterparts was that rules matter. Countries that set quotas for the number of women candidates each party put forward were able to advance parity in a very short time — in Ireland alone, the proportion of women in Parliament grew by 40% in one election! Contrast that with the almost stagnant march towards political parity in the US over the past decade (women have pretty much flatlined, holding 22% of elected offices) and you cannot help but conclude that the rules surrounding quotas were instrumental in achieving that European progress.

So how do we change the rules in America, so women can get ahead? Quotas are obviously an un-American word. And unlike Europe, the United States relies on a two-party system, which is dramatically different than how parliamentary democracies elect candidates to their governing bodies. Re-writing our constitution is an equally unlikely scenario.

Yet there has to be a means by which we figure this out, either by incentivizing political parties to put forward and endorse women candidates, by setting targets for an ideal number of women candidates, or by some other means. I don’t purport to have the answers, but fortunately the folks at Representation 2020 do. What is most important is that we have this conversation; that we stop saying changing the rules is not feasible and that we start talking about how we can make it feasible.

The women’s political movement hit a wall this November. We did not elect the first woman President. We made zero gains in Congress and state legislatures across the country. Women’s political progress in this country has stagnated. It is the definition of madness to continue to work the same way — recruiting, training, funding women candidates — and expect a different outcome. We need to change the rules, and thereby create systems where women can actually succeed. Let’s figure out how.