January 25, 2021
PATH TO PARITY: 2020 ELECTION REPORT - STATE LEGISLATURES
Photo Source: The New York Times
Note: These numbers were accurate as of publication. For the most current numbers, please visit: The Center for American Women and Politics, Election 2020 Results Tracker.
In 2021, a historic 143 women will serve in Congress. Billions of dollars are spent each cycle to elect the 535 members of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House and federal elected officials receive a disproportionate amount of attention from voters and the media alike. However, there are far more state legislators – 7,383 – than members of Congress, and as Congress becomes more polarized and thus less productive, the role and influence of state legislatures is growing.
Not only are there more state legislators than members of Congress, but a higher proportion of legislators are women. In 2021, women will account for only 26.7% of the members of Congress in comparison to 30.8% of state legislators. A record 2,275 women will serve in state legislatures in 2021, breaking the current record of 2,162 set in 2020. However, this gain of 113 seats, which increases women’s overall representation by 1.5% is less than half the net increase achieved in 2018, when women gained 237 seats.
Unfortunately, the gains seen nationally were not evenly distributed in states across the country. Thirty-two states will see the number of women serving in their statehouses increase in 2021, while women’s representation in six states will remain stagnant, and decline in 12 states. Likewise, women as a percentage of state legislators varies dramatically in states across the country, from a low of 11% in West Virginia to a high of 60% in Nevada.
Percentage of Women in State Legislatures
The vast variance among states, reinforces the need for targeted efforts to ensure women can sustain advances and reach parity in all 50 states, and is why we created The Ascend Fund. Investing in organizations training and recruiting women to run for office will accelerate the pace of change allowing states to reach gender parity sooner than they might otherwise.
Parity Spotlight: Minnesota
Fourteen years ago, in 2007, Minnesota elected a record 71 women to the state legislature. At the time, Minnesota ranked 3rd in the nation and 35.3% of the state’s 201 legislators were women. But in subsequent years, the number of women serving in office declined. In 2019, the state ranked 21st in the nation for women’s political representation.
That negative trend will be reversed this year, when a record 72 women are sworn into office, including 21 women in the Senate and 51 women in the House of Representatives. The 16-member freshman class comprised of 13 Democrats and three Republicans includes several historic firsts. At 29, Julia Coleman will be the youngest woman to serve in the state Senate, and Mary Kunesh-Podein is the first Native American woman elected to the Senate. In the House, Rep. Rena Moran will be the first woman and woman of color to chair the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
Rebounding to 14th in the nation and 35.8% representation for women does not happen by accident. Ascend anchor partner Vote Run Lead had 10 alumnae running for the state legislature in Minnesota. Learn more about Vote Run Lead’s Run 51 program to create gender equal legislatures by 2024 in key states, including Minnesota.
In 2018, Nevada became the first and only state to achieve gender parity in its state legislature, and this year the number of women serving will increase from 54% to 60.3%. Four other states achieved women-majorities in a single legislative chamber, including Arizona State Senate (50%), Colorado House (52.31%), New Mexico House (51.43%), Oregon House (50%), and Rhode Island Senate (50%).
Parity Spotlight: Colorado
In the Colorado House of Representatives where women now hold 34 of the 65 seats, New American Leaders’ alum Naquetta Ricks became the first Black immigrant in the Colorado Statehouse and the first Liberian American elected to a state legislature in the U.S. Ricks is joined by Iman Jodeh, the first Muslim elected to the legislature. Bonus: Ayah Ziyadeh, a former IGNITE fellow, managed Jodeh’s campaign.
Declines in Women's Representation
While we celebrate states like Nevada and Colorado for achieving gender parity in their legislative bodies, not all states saw increases in women’s representation. In 2021, 12 states will see a decrease in the number of women serving in their state legislatures, including Alaska, Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, and West Virginia. The most alarming drop occurred in Alaska with representation falling nearly 7%. Alaska, which previously ranked 11th in the country with 36.7%, now finds itself in the bottom 20 with only 30%.
Parity Spotlight: West Virginia
As concerning as the decline in Alaska and the other nine states are, the state that deserves the most attention is West Virginia, where women will now make up just 11% of the state legislators. While 38 women (22D, 16R) ran for 134 seats, just 16 won (4D, 12R). Republican women in the Assembly picked up one seat, while Democrats lost four. West Virginia has long struggled to elect women, ranking in the bottom quintile for the last decade. One must go back nearly 30 years, to 1991, to find a time when women briefly held more than 20% of the seats in the state legislature.
In 2021, The Ascend Fund hopes to invest in state-based organizations to better understand the obstacles women face in states like West Virginia and to develop strategies to recruit and train women to run for office in higher numbers. Learn more about our plan.
In a vibrant and inclusive democracy, leaders mirror the constituents they represent. However, it is worth noting that leadership at all levels in America has been overwhelmingly white and male which is why we are particularly excited by the significant strides made by women of color at the state level in the 2020 election.
Parity Spotlight: Washington
In Washington, at least 10 Black women ran for seats in the legislature, six of whom won, tripling their presence in the statehouse. Incumbents Debra Entenman and Melanie Morgan were reelected and will be joined in the Washington House of Representatives by April Berg, Kirsten Harris-Talley, and Jamila Taylor. T’wina Nobles was elected to the Senate, the first Black person in over a decade, and only the second Black woman to date.
Parity Spotlight: Kansas
In Kansas, a record three Native American women were elected to the State House of Representatives including:
• Rep. Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham and Ponca) won a 6th term.
• Christina Haswood (Diné) will become Kansas’ youngest state legislator at age 26.
• Stephanie Byers (Chickasaw) is the first openly transgender Native American elected to a state office in the country and Kansas’ first openly transgender lawmaker.
Learn more about how our partner, Advance Native, is addressing vast inequities and helping Native women overcoming unique and pervasive barriers to political leadership.
Parity Spotlight: Vermont
In Vermont, Kesha Ram became the first woman of color ever elected to the Vermont Senate. At 34, Ram is also the youngest woman ever elected to the Senate in Vermont, although she is used to breaking barriers. At 22, she became the youngest state legislator in the country when she won a seat in the Vermont House.
Our partner, Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS), is building a community to inspire and support AAPI women like Ram to become politically engaged through programming like the Women’s Collective. While our partner Victory Institute is elevating openly LGBTQ leaders through candidate and campaign trainings and other programs. And our partner Running Start empowers young women to get involved in politics and equips them with the skills and confidence necessary to run for office and win.
Like advances seen at the federal level, Republican women made substantial gains at the state level. In contrast to the previous record of 706 set in 2018, 748 Republican women will serve in state legislatures this year. However, Democratic women continue to outnumber Republican women by a ratio of two-to-one, having elected 1,507 women. The previous record was 1,467 set in 2020.
Parity Spotlight: New Hampshire
In 2020, the number of women running for the state legislature in New Hampshire increased nearly 20%, with 321 women (212D, 109R) running in 2020 in comparison to 2018 when only 270 women (194D, 76R) ran. Of the more than 300 women who ran, 152 won their races. Cumulatively women picked up only eight seats in a body of 424 members; but Republican women gained 26 seats, while Democratic women lost 18.
Achieving parity is only possible when women are elected on both sides of the aisle. Ensuring political parties prioritize the recruitment of women at the state level and that women account for at least 50% of major party candidates will ensure able to reach political parity at an accelerate rate. Read more about why The Ascend Fund is committed to a bipartisan approach to parity.
While women represent a greater proportion of elected officials at the state level than at the federal level, there is still a great amount of work left to do to reach gender parity in capitols across the country. In looking at who made progress and where, the importance of coordinated recruitment strategies and supporting candidates early in the cycle, financially and otherwise, play a key role in helping women from diverse backgrounds succeed.
The Ascend Fund is committed to changing the face of leadership. We believe it is important to establish a pathway for more women to see themselves as candidates and normalize women's leadership. We invest in organizations bridging the gap, providing women with the tools, training, and resources to successfully run for office. And we work to transform the system, dismantling roadblocks so elected officials reflect the diversity of the population.
Given the significant policy decisions made at the state level, the effects on the daily lives of Americans, and the cascading influence upward and across our communities, who we elect to state legislatures matters. We do not believe voters should have to wait more than 100 years for the leaders in our elected bodies to reflect the composition of our communities, so The Ascend Fund created a plan to achieve 50% representation in all 50 states by 2050.
In 2021, we will augment our national work and begin investing in state-level organizations. These partners will build coalitions committed to parity and diversity, set state-specific strategies for dismantling barriers, coordinate candidate recruitment and training, and amplify the message of the importance of a reflective democracy and the value of women’s contribution to government.
We understand that there are states like West Virginia where achieving parity will take persistence, but we are energized by the progress in states like Minnesota, and we look at Nevada and know parity is possible. Join us in accelerating the pace of parity by visiting our website, www.theascendfund.org, to learn more about our strategy and how to get involved.