Monday, January 28, 2013

A Long Wait, A Short List

As the fallout continues from Tom Harkin's retirement, we Iowans are sure to hear much about the No Women thing we share with Mississippi.

Under-representation of women is a problem in every congressional delegation except Maine and New Hampshire, and it's been an issue worldwide.

The United Kingdom, specifically the Labour Party, took a very specific step to address this in the last decade: the "all women short list."

Great Britain does not have party primaries like the U.S. They have a shorter general election season and a permanent party structure. Each district (or "constituency") has a committee and those committees formally nominate the candidates, sort of like we're doing at our special convention this week.

But the local groups aren't fully in charge. The national party presents the locals with a list to choose from, called the "short list." This may include people who don't live in the area, since that's not a requirement. The national parties often slate their cabinet officers or other key members in the safest seats, for example.

In the mid 1990s, Labour addressed gender inequity by presenting some constituencies, particulary open seats with good numbers, with short lists made up entirely of women. This succeeded, in no small part because 1997 was such a landslide for the party.

It backfired sometimes. In 2005 a local official in Wales who had patiently waited for his seat to open up was passed over for an all-women short list; he ran as an independent on the issue and won.

The all-women short list option is open to all parties but only Labour uses it. The Tories, in fairness, just remind people about Margaret Thatcher instead.

In an open, primary-based system like the U.S., an all women short list is impossible. Personally, I like the way the Democratic Party picks its national delegates. Half the seats are male, half are female, and the elections are separate.

Theoretically you could do the same for a legislative body. Instead of four Congressmen, Iowa gets eight. Still four districts, but each district gets a man and a woman. There's a lot to think about: the ideal maximum size of Congress, the very notion of single member districts, maybe even the value of gender balance itself, though I think it's important.

We're not working in a theoretical world. But Iowa's reality is that we may well have three US House seats open in addition to the Senate seat, and that comparison to Mississippi is especially galling to Democratic women. Male candidates, especially in the 1st District, might need to make a stronger personal case for themselves.

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