September 29, 2022

Opinion: Women and racialized political candidates are set up to fail

Erin Tolley is Canada Research Chair in Gender, Race and Inclusive Politics and Associate Professor of Political Science at Carleton University.

Recent elections have resulted in more women, racialized and Indigenous people holding political office in Canada. This is good news, but we still have a long way to go. Elected institutions still do not reflect the demographics of the populations they claim to represent. These representation gaps are a clear indicator of democratic inequality.

It is not that there is a shortage of qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds. It is that the major parties still tend to favor white, male and middle-aged candidates. Parties have many tools they need to address electoral underrepresentation, but rather than being a gateway to politics, parties are often gatekeepers. It is time for that to change.

Political parties are the main pressure point in any effort to address electoral underrepresentation. The problem is not really voter bias: Canadians tend to cast their vote on party and leader preference, and that inclination tends at override all but the strongest prejudices against local candidates. There is also no shortage of qualified candidates, but the parties underestimate the electoral potential of those who do not fit the mould.

If all parties nominated a more diverse slate of candidates in winnable constituencies, elected institutions would be more representative.

As the last election approaches in Ontario, commentators pointed the High number of women and racialized candidates, including many from immigrant and minority backgrounds. But when the votes were counted, the gender composition of the legislature remained to the point of death only 39% women.

What happened?

We need to look beyond the aggregated “diversity” numbers of candidates. It’s not just who is nominated, but also where they race. Realizing that this is electorally advantageous, some parties have attempted to recruit more women and racialized candidates, but women continue to be particularly disproportionate appointed in constituencies, the party has no hope of winning. It’s not inclusion.

And while there has been progress in the right direction, it’s not enough – and it hasn’t been for all parties at all levels of government.

For example, before the Ontario election, the Liberals set aside 22 ridings and designated them Women Only nomination contest. In the end, the party’s dismal electoral fortunes meant that it only won in one of these designated constituencies, but polls indicate it was more of a rejection of the party and its leader than individual candidates.

If all parties committed to appointing more women to winnable ridings, the demographics of our elected institutions would change.

International evidence confirms the key role parties can play.

In 2005, the British Labor Party introduced legislation which allows parties to use all-female shortlists to achieve gender equality in parliament. In the 2019 elections, 51% of elected MPs from the party were women. There are Nope evidence voters punished Labor for using an affirmative action measure, and the women selected were equally qualified than other candidates, often even more.

There is a straight line between fairer appointment practices and increased gender representation. Political parties that are serious about democratic equality should take note.

But parties need to think about diversity beyond gender.

In Canada, the primary beneficiaries of most diversification efforts are white women. At the federal level, mine to research shows that racialized candidates are running for party nomination in numbers that exceed their share of the population, yet parties still show a preference for white candidates, even in some of the most diverse ridings in the country. And even when naming more diverse lists, parties still channel more money to prototypical white male candidates.

Without financial and organizational support, candidates are doomed to failure.

Politics is increasingly seen as inhospitable. Electoral commitment is at a historically low. If parties are waiting to see which candidates knock on their door and want to run, chances are it’s one of the usual suspects. The time to think about recruiting and organizing candidates is now – and not just at election time or in the hectic few months before it.

Enough wringing hands. The parties must recognize their role and commit to act. To open the doors, they must proactively identify, recruit, and support a more representative slate of candidates with money and organizing ability in constituencies where they can actually win.

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