Black women are among the most politically underrepresented Americans. They are 7.7 percent of the total US population and 15.3 percent of the population of women, yet they are only 5.4 percent of all voting members of Congress, 5.2 percent of all state legislators, and only 3.5 percent of all statewide elective executives, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. No Black woman has served — ever — as governor of a state, and currently 8 percent of all mayors in the 100 most populous cities are Black women.

Black women are like the proverbial canary in the mine shaft. Coal miners would carry the canaries down into the tunnels with them so if dangerous gases such as carbon monoxide amassed in the mine, the gases would sicken the canary before killing the miners, thus providing a warning to exit the tunnels immediately. Like the canaries, Black women are an early indicator of potential danger with our representative democracy. If the most vulnerable of us can’t be included at the table, then none of us are safe.

A new report from the nonpartisan RepresentWomen, called “Breaking Barriers for Black Woman Candidates,” helps us understand why Black women have been so politically underrepresented, and what the US can do to rectify that historical wound. It’s much more complex than simply shouting “racism,” though that is certainly a significant cultural factor. It’s also about the specific rules of elections — the very foundation of our representative democracy — that are distorting the deserved representation of Black women, as well as of other racial demographics.

To set the tone for what’s at stake -- namely the much espoused but rarely practiced democratic homily of “representation for all” -- the paper opens with a personal testimony from Victoria Pelletier, the second African American city councilor ever elected in Portland, ME. Ms. Pelletier calls her election “one of the greatest achievements of my life, and on the other hand, it’s one of the most mentally and emotionally challenging experiences I’ve ever had.” During her tenure, she says, “there have been death threats and hate mail sent to my personal address. I’ve had my photo and personal information put on a website specifically for threats of violence. I’ve had photos of my family posted on a website specifically for threats of violence. I’ve endured a multitude of racial slurs being shouted during public comment.”

Why Midterms Matter for Black Girls and Young Women?


The report explores several key factors

inherent to the systemic barriers Black

women candidates face: the inadequacy

of candidate recruitment by the political

parties, the insidiousness of racially

inequitable campaign funding, and the

toxic impact of the winner-take-all

electoral system in negatively shaping

the political landscape, which denies

Black women the sufficient opportunities

needed to run successful campaigns.

The report makes a strong case that “the U.S. political system has built its foundations on white patriarchy, which inherently fails to account for the challenges faced by Black women who want to participate in politics. Although a record-breaking number of Black women ran and won in recent elections, they remain underrepresented at all levels of government, showing a need to understand the specific barriers that they face.”

Candidate Recruitment

Recruitment of Black women by political parties is crucial because party endorsements confer tremendous advantages on the candidates who receive their support. Parties recruit and select candidates based on factors like party loyalty, popularity, and preparedness. And based on the low number of Black women who are actually nominated by parties, clearly also by race and gender.

The Republican Party, for example, rarely recruits Black women as candidates. RepresentWomen speculates that this may be because the majority of women who support the GOP are non-Black. In 2022, there were 136 Republican women nominees seeking federal and state office, but only 10 were Black women.

The Democratic Party has a better track record of nominating diverse candidates, but it has still routinely supported white men and women over Black female candidates. Look at the current U.S. Senate race in California, where the Democratic Party establishment has passed up a great opportunity to make up for this historical imbalance by supporting a stellar Black woman, Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Instead, Democratic Party traditionalists have mostly rallied behind Congressman Adam Schiff. If elected, Congresswoman Lee would be only the third Black woman elected to serve as a U.S. Senator in the ancient, flawed history of the American nation.

That wasn’t the only time in recent memory that the Democrats chose the white guy over the Black woman. The report takes a closer look at Maryland’s 2015 Senate race, in which Democratic Party leaders endorsed Rep. Chris Van Hollen over African-American Rep. Donna Edwards, despite their almost identical voting records and support from progressive groups. The report says that the Van Hollen campaign ran offensive ads depicting Edwards as an angry Black woman and questioning her integrity. Edwards faced a barrage of personal attacks on her character and personality. Edwards says she was accused of playing "identity politics" by the allegedly big-tent Democrats because she talked about the need for the perspectives of people of color, women, and especially Black women to have a home in the United States Senate. Edwards says that a leading Democrat argued that the US needs "strong white men to carry the flag for people of color." WTF!

To fill the gap left by the stuck-in-the-mud political parties, PACs and political organizations have stepped up to endorse Democratic candidates. Organizations such as Emily’s List and Justice Democrats have endorsed promising Black women. But an even more effective potential solution would be gender- and race-balanced recruitment targets. Groups like RepresentWomen.org have recommended that parties address the biases in candidate selection processes by introducing such recruitment targets and quotas. Parties could also do a much better job acting as connectors by creating opportunities for Black women candidates to network with influential donors, recruit volunteers, and promote their campaigns.

Back in 2017, a number of Black women leaders wrote an open letter to then-Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chair Tom Perez, bringing the party’s neglect of Black women into the spotlight and requesting a meeting to get the party to invest more actively in Black women as political leaders. Strategist Donna Brazile and political entities like the Maryland Black Caucus Foundation have similarly highlighted the need to recruit more Black women to run for elected office. Early investment by parties is critical to building a strong pipeline of viable Black women candidates. By recruiting Black women to run for entry-level county and precinct positions, parties would create opportunities for Black women to run for higher levels of office with party support.

Candidate organizations such as The Black Women’s Roundtable, Emerge, EMILY’s List, Higher Heights for America PAC, and IGNITE have created a blueprint for the actions that parties can take to level the playing field for Black women candidates. Initiatives that allow them and the electeds to connect, such as mentorship programs and networking forums, and setting candidate recruitment targets and quotas, provide support systems for Black women that span beyond one election cycle. The report makes a compelling case that uplifting Black women in the political sphere will strengthen parties, allowing them to expand their base and create policy platforms derived from actual lived rather than assumed experiences

Campaign Funding Inequities = Racially Inequitable Funding

US elections have long suffered from campaign funding inequities that make it difficult for underfunded candidates to gain a foothold. But Black woman face an even starker cliff than most.

Black women rely more on small-dollar donations than their white counterparts. In 2023, Angela Alsobrooks raised more money from individual donations than her opponent, David Trone, in Maryland’s U.S. Senate Democratic primary. Trone, who reported earning an annual salary of up to $14 million, pulled 98 percent of the $10 million he raised from his personal accounts. Most Black women cannot match the fat wallets of wealthy candidates like Trone, and so must have access to equitable funding.

Lacking the personal financial wealth, Black woman therefore have to depend more heavily on political small donors, party funding and PACs. Yet those donation sources generally fund Black women’s campaigns less than those of white women or white men.

In competitive primary and general elections, Black Democratic women challengers receive significantly less money from large individual donors than any other group of candidates. And Black Democratic women receive much less money than other candidates from early donors, educators and retirees — which are the groups and industries that power Democratic campaigns. White men running for office consistently dominate in fundraising.

This is hardly surprising given historical prejudice, whether conscious or unconscious. What’s more surprising is how little has been done to counteract these disadvantages for Black female candidates and to level the playing field.

Here are some obvious solutions.

Donors and PACs must actively commit to allocating funds to Black women’s campaigns. National parties should incentivize state and local parties to fund more Black women candidates. Gender-balanced funding initiatives are not uncommon and are already used across industries, such as the African Women Impact Fund or chapters of the Black sorority Delta Sigma Theta, which helps Black women fundraise through soliciting donations from alumni networks. All of these efforts help to build a funding pipeline for Black women candidates.

But that still relies on private sources of campaign funding, and given that Black women have the lowest per capita income, and the black community in general has low income levels, the real breakout solution is public financing of campaigns. Programs in which small-dollar donations are matched by tax dollars exist in a range of cities (though not much at state and federal levels). Cities like New York, Los Angeles, Denver and San Francisco provide public matching funds of eight or nine dollars for every private dollar raised by a candidate. These programs do the most to allow non-traditional candidates to run competitive campaigns. Such public financing of campaigns incentivizes candidates to rely on everyday voters rather than big money and special interest groups.

Winner-Take-All = All Don’t Win

Another fundamental barrier to Black women’s political success is the winner-take-all electoral system, in which we elect representatives one seat at a time. When voters have a single vote to elect a single representative, research has demonstrated that many voters are reluctant to cast that vote for someone they perceive as different or unelectable – such as a Black woman.

Part of the “winner take all” dynamic is the common defect known as “vote splitting.” In a multi-candidate field, candidates from the same political constituency — such as several Black women candidates or a Black male and a Black female candidate — can end up spoiling each other’s candidacy. Black women have frequently reported being told to wait their turn by party leaders who are worried about candidates they consider to be less competitive spoiling the election for their chosen candidates.

In Maryland, Glenarden mayor Cashenna Cross says, "Black women [candidates] have developed a ‘hospitality mentality’ because we have been told to wait our turn for so long. They think we have got to wait for somebody to invite us to the table.” Cross is mayor of a city where all seven seats on the city council are held by African-Americans, with four of them being Black women.

The RepresentWomen report highlights two solutions to the toxicities of the winner-take-all method used in most elections across the country – ranked choice voting and proportional representation.

Implementing ranked choice voting (RCV) would mitigate these issues somewhat by allowing more candidates to run and more non-traditional candidates to win without spoiling each other. Under RCV, voters rank candidates based on preference, meaning that multiple Black women can be on the same ballot without splitting the vote.

Across the US about 60 jurisdictions use RCV, including San Francisco which elected London Breed as its first Black woman mayor in 2018. The RepresentWomen report found that transforming America’s antiquated, winner-take-all electoral system is a critical step in creating more opportunities for Black women to run and win.

Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, and San Leandro CA all adopted RCV in the early 2000s, with Albany following their lead a number of years later. In Oakland, Black voters have been more likely to rank candidates than white voters, showing positive engagement with RCV. New York City held its first RCV elections in 2021, resulting in an astounding result – the most diverse city council ever, including a woman of color majority with 10 Black women, four Afro-Latinas, and a Black woman Speaker. RepresentWomen evaluated the impact of NYC’s first woman of color majority council in its Impact Analysis of NYC's Woman Majority Council.

Several viable strategies can be implemented to address the gender and race-based barriers that impact Black women’s ability to run for office and win elections. RepresentWomen’s research shows that both candidate-level and systems-level solutions are required to increase women’s political participation at all levels of government.

Proportional Representation: The Pot of Gold in the Mine Shaft

The most powerful reform of all would be proportional ranked choice voting (PRCV), which is a multi-winner electoral system that permits voters to rank candidates by preference. PRCV is advantageous to Black women candidates because this multi-winner system lowers the “victory threshold” – the percentage of votes needed to win a seat – and that in turn provides more opportunities for Black women to get elected.

The use of PRCV in Cambridge MA and Albany CA has resulted in more diverse city councils. PRCV has yielded representative outcomes in cities like Arden, DE and Minneapolis, MN. Starting this November, Portland Oregon will also use PRCV to elect its city council, after a successful campaign that was led by communities of color to pass it via a voter-approved ballot measure.

To increase the number of Black women in local offices, cities with high Black populations should be the primary targets of electoral reformers looking to implement PRCV. As voting rights expert Lani Guinier once asserted, “51 percent of the people should not get 100 percent of the power.”

The RW report finds that, for Black women to run and have a chance of winning, it is necessary to dismantle both the candidate-level and systems-level obstacles they currently face. Political parties play key roles in candidate recruitment and should invest early and often in Black women. PACs, donors, and public financing programs can decrease the impact of large-dollar donations and put power back in the hands of voters. RCV and PRCV should be implemented to create fairer elections and more representative outcomes.

The report concludes with a stirring call to arms:


A representative government fosters trust between voters and elected officials. Having more Black women elected increases the likelihood that challenges faced by Black communities are addressed by representatives who can relate to their lived experiences and have a vested interest in implementing effective policy solutions. For Black women, seeing themselves in government combats misogynoir and reinforces the fact that they are capable and worthy decision-makers.

Election reformers can tinker around the edges and hope for the best. Or they can learn the lessons from the broken past: Change the rules, and you change the results.

RepresentWomen’s excellent report does a great service by identifying which rules need to change to empower the canaries in the mine shaft and bring them into the light of fresh air.

BC Guest Commentator Steven Hill is

chief editor of @DemocracySOS. He is a

political writer and author of seven

books, among them 10 Steps to Repair

American Democracy,” Europe’s Promise:

Why the European Way Is the Best Hope

in an Insecure Ageand Raw Deal: How

the Uber Economy and Runaway

Capitalism Are Screwing American

Workers. His op-eds, articles and media

interview have appeared in the New York

Times, Washington Post, Wall Street

Journal, CNN, CNBC, C-Span, NPR,

Democracy Now, The Atlantic, Politico,

Guardian, The Nation, American

Prospect, Le Monde, Die Zeit and many


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