Report: Michigan ranks 3rd in women’s political participation

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer give an update on COVID-19 | Gov. Whitmer office photo

From 2011 to 2019, Michigan only had one female top statewide officeholder in then-Secretary of State Ruth Johnson. Now women run Michigan — and that’s one reason why the state ranks third in the country for women’s political participation in a new study from the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The state was 15th in 2015, the last time the report was issued. Factors like voting and voter turnout, women in elected office and state legislatures and institutional resources available to them are included.

Since 2019, Michigan is the only state in the country with a female governor (Gretchen Whitmer), attorney general (Dana Nessel), secretary of state (Jocelyn Benson) and Supreme Court chief justice (Bridget McCormack). All are Democrats.

“We’ve made great progress in Michigan in recent years and I’m truly proud that we’ve been ranked third in the nation for women’s political participation,” Whitmer told the Michigan Advance. “We cannot rest until we increase women’s civic engagement and representation so our state and local government truly reflects the voices and concerns of women and their families across Michigan and that will only happen if more women participate, serve and lead.”

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As of July 2020, only nine states had female governors, including Michigan. The others are Alabama, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon and South Dakota.

Michigan has shot up in the rankings because its share of women in elected office — seats in Congress, statewide elective offices and the Legislature — has increased. In 2015, Michigan was 26th and is now sixth in 2020. The other big change is in the share of women who turn out to vote, going from 55.7% in the 2015 study to 61.8% in 2020.

The state has had one female U.S. senator in Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) since 2001, but now five of the state’s 14 members of Congress are female: U.S. Reps. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills), Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) and Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly).

Women’s political participation in states | Institute for Women’s Policy Research chart

In the Legislature, both of the Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate are 50% female this term.

However, Michigan still only earned an overall “B” grade in 2015 and no state was awarded an “A,” as the study indicates there’s still work to be done for women to achieve equity in politics.

“While women constitute a powerful force in the electorate today and inform policymaking at all levels of government, women continue to be underrepresented at all levels and face barriers that often make it difficult for them to exercise political power and assume leadership positions in the public sphere,” write report authors Elyse Shaw, C. Nicole Mason and Adiam Tesfaselassie. 

Overall, Maine ranks first in the study for women’s political participation with a “B+”, Washington is second with “B” and Michigan is third. New Hampshire, Minnesota, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, Iowa and Massachusetts are the rest of the top 10.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (left), Attorney General Dana Nessel (center) and Chief Justice Bridge McCormack (right) at the State of the State address, Jan. 29, 2020 | Andrew Roth

Arkansas ranks dead last, followed by Louisiana, Utah and South Carolina, which all earned “F” grades.

The top state for women in elected office is Nevada, followed by New Hampshire, Washington, Maine, Arizona and Michigan, per the report. Rounding out the top 10 are California, Minnesota, Oregon and Iowa.

“As governor, one of my goals has been to encourage and inspire more women to participate in the political process so our policies, decisions and priorities reflect the unique needs of women and their families across the state of Michigan,” Whitmer said.

Nationally, women hold 23% of elected seats in Congress, despite being more than half the population, and about one in three state legislative seats, per the report. The study also notes that women of color are still vastly underrepresented in Congress. Only four women of color are in the U.S. Senate — Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.). Women of color make up 9.9% of the U.S. House, despite being 18% of the population. 

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The study took the 2016 and 2018 average in ranking states for women’s voter turnout and Michigan ranked eighth. Maine was first with 70.45%, followed by Wisconsin (67.4%), Montana (65.70%), Minnesota (64.6%), North Dakota (63.5%), Mississippi (62.4%), Washington (61.95%), Michigan (61.8%), New Hampshire (61.55%) and Missouri (60.6%).

The study also looked at women’s institutional resources, such as campaign trainings and women’s commissions that help bring women into the political process. Michigan was tied for second with 18 other states in that category. California, Florida, Massachusetts, Texas and Connecticut tied for first.

As for ensuring that women have equal access to a fair electoral process, the report suggests a number of proposals, including recruiting more women to run for office and higher office, expanding training programs and addressing structural barriers that prevent women from running for office like lack of affordable childcare and paid leave.

The study also recommends broad policy reforms, including combatting gerrymandering with a fair redistricting process; eliminating voter ID laws; and voter safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as instituting electronic voter registration, expanding absentee voting and making election day a paid holiday. 

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Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.