Catherine Bolzendahl is Director of the School of Public Policy and Professor of Sociology at Oregon State University. Hilde Coffé is Professor of Politics in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath.
Every year the non-profit democracy watchdog group Freedom House evaluates the political rights and civil liberties in countries of the globe. Among the 210 countries and regions it analyses, 81 in 2020 were classified as “free.” This diverse group includes a wide array of nations from Great Britain, to Chile, Bulgaria to the United States.
Despite comprising vastly different electoral rules and legislative systems, these democracies share a foundation in voting. The core right - and responsibility – for citizens to freely and directly elect their lawmakers is the cornerstone of modern democracy. In recent years, however, political social scientists (including ourselves) have emphasised the importance of looking beyond electoral participation. While recognising the importance of voting, there is a broad variety of ways in which people can engage in politics.
In our own research examining wealthy Western democracies, we find some disturbing ongoing inequalities when it comes to gender gaps in different types engagement. First, women, in general, are much less likely than men to participate in a number political activities including joining a demonstration, attending a political meeting, or contacting politicians. Why? Well, we know women generally have less access than men to the types of socio-economic resources (money, time, occupational autonomy) that would enable them to participate more. In a chicken-or-the-egg fashion, we also know women are less politically interested and feel less politically effective than men. All of this depresses women’s engagement in political activities - but not all political activities, which leads us back to voting.
Voting, in turns out (pun intended), is one of the areas where women outpace men. Cross-nationally, women tend to vote as much as or even more so, than men in national elections. This is certainly true for the US. According to an analysis of the Center for American Women and Politics, women reported voting at a slightly higher rate than men in each US presidential election since 1964. In the 2016 presidential election, 63 percent of eligible women voters casted their ballot, compared with 59 percent of corresponding men. This aligns with our own research. We find that taking into account gender gaps in socio-economic resources and in political interest, women are far more likely than men to report voting in elections.
Yet, women are far from a monolithic group in the US and not all women are equally likely to turn out to vote. In particular, there are significant differences by racial and ethnic background. According to a study of the Pew Research Center based on Census Bureau data, in 2016, turnout was slightly higher among white women (67 percent) compared with black women (64 percent). Comparably, only 48 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander women and 50 percent of Hispanic women reported to have voted. Such large gaps indicate that racial and ethnic minority women are particularly marginalised in terms of access to this basic democratic right, and suggests a failure of the democratic system in the US.
The party that wins women’s votes in general, and that can successfully bring minority women into their fold, thus stands to reap large gains. A truism in political social science, women are much more likely than men to favour left-leaning parties and express left-leaning ideological views on policy issues. Echoing long-term trends established in social science research, the Pew Research Center’s most recent numbers show that women in the US tend to vote Democrat. In 2016, 54 percent of women voted for the Democratic candidate (Hillary Clinton) over the Republican (Donald Trump). However, like voter turnout, only when accounting for characteristics such as ethnicity and education do we get a fuller picture. In fact, white women without a college education voted overwhelmingly for the Republican candidate (61 percent), compared with their college educated counterparts who favoured the Democratic candidate (51 percent). By comparison, 94 percent of Black women, and 69 percent of Latinas voted for the Democrat. Clearly, increasing the turnout for Black women and Latina groups could lead to big gains for Democrats.
Which brings us to the upcoming presidential election. Lacking a crystal ball, predictions are tough. However, in what promises to be one of the highest electoral turnouts in over a decade, as suggested by the high number of votes that have already been cast by mail or in person, high rates of women voters, particularly among non-white women, may drive outcomes. The Democratic ticket has one major advantage in this respect – Kamala Harris. A woman of mixed Black and South Asian ancestry whose family are recent immigrants lines up well with important constituencies that vote Democrat and might be mobilised toward increased turnout. Though women remain marginalised in the formal halls of US representation, it’s clear that their votes will matter a great deal in this election.
This post is part of on an ongoing series on the United States Presidential election, 2020. View more.