Voting Rights: Perhaps The Most Pivotal Gender Equity Conversation Of The Year
Welcome to my weekly Q&A feature. (Scroll down to find the Q&A.)
If this is your first time here, welcome. I spend a fair amount of time speaking at events and conferences. At the end of my presentations, I leave space for audience members to ask questions—tough questions, brave questions, you name it. The level of candor and curiosity always inspires me, and I want to share that sentiment with you. So each week, I pick one question that I believe others would find most instructive and publish my response to it here.
The purpose of this weekly tradition is transparency and inclusion.
Transparency: a behind-the-scenes look at my day-to-day.
Inclusion: bringing others along on the journey.
What Do Voting Rights Have To Do With Gender Equity?
What are the most exciting or important developments in gender equality that you’re watching this year?
Voting rights. When I cast my gaze on the horizon of 2022, I’m dialing my focus on who has the right to participate in the great experiment of American democracy—and more importantly, who doesn’t.
Sure, political enfranchisement doesn’t carry the same allure as issues such as the pay gap or the glass ceiling. In fact, 32% of voters responded “none” when asked which of the three voting reform ideas should be high priority for Congress right now:
Reforming Congress’ role in counting Electoral College votes
Expanding voting access
Expanding oversight of states’ changes to voting practices.
When nearly a third of US voters don’t recognize voting rights as a high priority, we have a rampant case of myopia on our hands.
Without voting rights, we don’t have a democracy. And without a democracy, we don’t have a mechanism to capture and transform folks’ unique experiences into the types of policies that create conditions for all of us to thrive. In other words: enfranchisement precedes equitable economic growth.
Enfranchisement Precedes Equitable Economic Growth
For many Americans, voting has become a series of flaming hula hoops to jump through, effectively silencing them into accepting the status quo of inequity. This makes voting rights all the more urgent for the subjects of inequity, such as women and people of color; they have functioned as second-level citizens since the birth of our democracy 245 years ago.
Casting A Vote Shouldn’t Be This Difficult In A Democracy
In 2021, at least 19 states passed 34 laws making it harder for citizens to vote. One year, 34 laws restricting access to the ballot. And that’s to say nothing of the 440+ bills with disenfranchisement provisions that were at least introduced across state legislatures in 2021, many of which have carried over into the 2022 legislative session.
This concerns me. Strict voting laws have been sprouting up since the landmark Shelby County v. Holder case in 2013. We don’t need more. Take ID requirements as an example. Ostensibly, strict ID requirements to cast a ballot sound reasonable to prevent voter fraud. However, certain criteria for identification becomes discriminatory when it fails to account for the 25% of Black citizens (compared to the 8% of White citizens) who don’t have a government-issued ID.
In 2017, Native American voters were twice as likely as White voters to experience discrimination when trying to participate in our nation’s democratic processes. Latinos were three times as likely. Black voters were four times as likely.
I’m an economist with a focus on gender-equitable growth, so why am I paying attention to voting rights? Because political rights are an economic issue.
Political Rights Are An Economic Issue
The biggest advancement for the position of women in the US came via the 19th Amendment in 1920. That’s according to a 2020 Pew Research poll of 3,143 US adults. The 19th Amendment increased the size of the American electorate by 26 million to 30 million people overnight.
And while the 19th Amendment extended the right to vote to mostly White women (a troubling issue that the US didn’t address until decades later), we can’t ignore its impact on the economy.
As women started lining up at the polls, they also started taking their seats in public office. The increase in women’s representation in public office saw the creation of progressive legislation proposals, including social spending for sanitation infrastructure, charity organizations, and public-private health campaigns. These policies led to positive outcomes such as reducing the child mortality rate by 15% and decreasing the number of school drop-outs.
Women’s increased political representation not only spurred the creation of policies that benefited our society—it spurred policies that benefited our labor supply. Between 1960 and 2000, women’s labor force participation rose from 38% to 60%. Since 1970, women’s increased supply of labor has added $2 trillion to US GDP.
Over the decades, women have proven to be 10% more effective legislators and have delivered 9% more money in federal programs to home districts compared to men politicians.
The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 further punctuates the connection between political rights and economic equity. Research shows that the Voting Rights Act narrowed the median Black-White wage gap by approximately 30 percentage points. (30 points!) That’s largely due to Black citizens finally having a channel to voice their concerns about labor market discrimination.
Different Perspectives Draw Attention To Different Needs, Leading To Different Policies
Let’s contextualize this.
1. Congress is debating the fate of two pivotal pieces of voting rights laws: the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
2. We are coming off of a pandemic that shaved away decades of progress toward gender equity. Women account for 59.2% of the 3.6 million net jobs lost since February 2020.
3. December 2021’s jobs report found that 144,000 Black women joined the labor force in December, but this entire net increase represented Black women who were unemployed and looking for work. Black Women are the only cohort who increased their labor force participation but didn't gain jobs. Their unemployment rate actually rose from November to December—from 4.9% to 6.2%.
It’s never the right time to suppress the perspectives, voices, and needs of key cohorts of our population. Especially not now. As we head into Black History Month, then Women’s History Month, let’s remember that political rights are economic rights. Inequity in one realm breeds inequity everywhere. We can’t spot fix inequity.
Keep An Eye Out For These Pro-Democracy Provisions
Before we go, here are key provisions to look for in the forthcoming voting rights legislation:
Expanding automatic voter registration
Removing barriers to voting for people with prior criminal convictions
Improving access to mail-in voting
Expanding same-day voter registration
Making Election Day a federal holiday
Banning partisan gerrymandering
Increasing support for early voting
Making it illegal to inhibit somebody’s ability to vote and register to vote
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