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The potential for women in the Senate

by Laura Kirshner // Published June 5, 2008
New Mexico's U.S. Representative Heather Wilson fell a mere two percentage points short of clinching the Republican Senate nomination this past week. Representative Steve Pearce won the primary 51 to 49 percent. New Mexico has yet to send a woman to the U.S. Senate, and Wilson's defeat means that the open Senate seat left by GOP Senator Pete Dominici (who endorsed Wilson last weekend) will be filled by one of two male candidates.

The state of New Mexico leans heavily towards the Democratic party, so it makes sense that the republican nomination goes to someone who has a reasonable chance of defeating the Democratic candidate. However, I can't help but wonder if, in such a tight race, a significant portion of the GOP voters in the New Mexico primary voted for Pearce because they suspected that only a male candidate would have a shot at winning the Senate seat for the GOP. If any voters felt that a female candidate would be less viable in the general election, they might think that a vote for Wilson would be wasted, even if they thought she was the more qualified candidate.

Women currently hold 16 of the 100 seats in the US Senate, and have held a total of 1.85% of all seats since the establishment of the Senate in 1789. A study conducted by the Brookings Institute reveals that, although women have comparable success rates to men when it comes to competing for open seats, challenging incumbents, and defending seats, the Senate's male-dominated past means that incumbency prevents women from holding a proportional share of the seats. With so many male incumbents running for re-election each year, the window for women to enter the Senate is far narrower than that faced by male candidates.

In the past, women have entered the Senate by winning open seats or by appointment due to the death or resignation of a Senator. Rarely do women successfully win seats against male incumbents. Despite the obstacle of incumbency, women have made great strides in winning Senate seats, with over half of all female Senators throughout history currently serving in the 110th Congress.

One can only hope that Hillary Clinton's long bid for the Democratic presidential nomination will leave a legacy for future women nominees. As the first woman to win the New Hampshire primary, one of the most influential contests in the primary process, Clinton has shown voters that a woman is quite capable of running a successful presidential campaign. Perhaps this will convince voters in the upcoming congressional contests that a vote cast for a qualified female candidate is not wasted. There is no need to vote for the male candidate, simply because it boosts the chances that one party or the other will win the election. Many people declined to vote for Clinton because they did not think that a woman could win the general election, hence a vote for Clinton would be a waste and voters opted for their second, (and in their opinions, more viable) choice. Many held similar attitudes towards Barack Obama, believing that a black candidate could not carry the Democratic party into the White House.

This sort of "strategic voting" is not uncommon in winner-take-all election systems. Ranked choice voting would solve this problem by allowing voters to rank their candidates, such that those candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated from the contest and those who voted for eliminated candidates have their votes count towards their second choice. Under this system, if I believe Hillary is the best candidate, but I am concerned about her viability, I can rank her first and place John Edwards second and Barack Obama third, for instance. This way, if Clinton is not a viable candidate, she will receive fewer votes and be eliminated from the contest. My vote will now count towards Edwards instead of Clinton, so my vote will not be "wasted".

With a ranked-choice voting system voters need not worry about the viability of their favorite candidate. They are free to vote for whomever they feel is the most qualified to serve in office, and they no longer need to vote strategically for a candidate that might carry the party into the office because he fits the white male cliche.