Black Women Are Riding a Wave From Voter Participation to Political Office

Your Take: What it means that more black women are making bids for national and statewide elected office this year than ever before.

Brenda Lawrence, Mayor of Southfield, Michigan and Democratic nominee for U.S. House, District 14 covering parts of Detroit, Wayne and Oakland.
Brenda Lawrence, Mayor of Southfield, Michigan and Democratic nominee for U.S. House, District 14 covering parts of Detroit, Wayne and Oakland. Twitter

Black women went to the polls in record numbers in 2012, registering and voting at a higher rate than any other group of voters. In 2014 they’ve set another record: More black women are making bids for national and statewide elected office this year than ever before.

According to a recent analysis, 30 black women are running for U.S. House seats in the general election, constituting more than a third of the record-breaking 83 black candidates who are vying for these offices. Moreover, among female candidates seeking open seats in the House of Representatives this year, five of the eight who are favored to win are black women. Two black women are seeking U.S. Senate seats, and 10 new black female candidates and two incumbents are running for statewide posts.

Included among the mix of candidates are five black women who are making a historic simultaneous bid for statewide office in Georgia, a gubernatorial candidate in the Virgin Islands, and candidates in South Carolina and Oklahoma who are running for the U.S. Senate. These offices are some of the toughest to win, and historically few black women have sought them.

A win by just a handful of these candidates could significantly shift the political landscape and help redefine the face of leadership on the state and national levels.  Currently, 14 black women hold U.S. House seats (pdf), and two nonvoting black female delegates serve in Congress. If all the incumbents running for re-election hold on to their seats, and if each of the five black women who are favored to win their open-seat contests succeeds, the 114th Congress will have a record 18 black female members and two nonvoting black female delegates. On the statewide level, only two black women—California’s attorney general and Connecticut’s state treasurer—currently hold office. That number would double if even a fraction of the black women seeking statewide office this year win.

The recent surge of candidates running for political office makes clear that black women are moving beyond making their presence felt at the ballot box to expanding their ranks at decision-making tables, where they can play an integral role in shaping state and national policies enacted after Election Day.

Once in office, black women have championed the interests of both African Americans and women, supporting progressive agendas around education, health care and economic development. Just one example of where the leadership of these black women can make an immediate difference is in the tenor of our country’s democracy. One of the most significant developments over the past few years has been the proliferation of voter-suppression measures in state legislatures around the country. In Georgia and Ohio, which have some of the most restrictive voter-ID laws, black women are running for secretary of state—a critical position to protecting voting rights.

Moreover, there is some evidence that the existence of black female candidates for Congress on the ballot can increase black women’s likelihood of voting and help inspire civic participation among all women. This “role-model effect” can engage and encourage more black women to run for office, as well as help build a network of black women to support them.

We won’t know until Nov. 4 how black female candidates and others will fare in their races, but a key factor in the outcome will be whether black women turn out to vote in force for the midterm elections. Off-year elections have historically had low voter turnout across all demographic groups. The trend isn’t expected to change this year, particularly among black women, whose numbers are projected to drop by 34 percent. But perhaps black women will defy expectations, as they have in the past, and seize this historic opportunity to bring more diversity to our governing bodies and to elect officials who are responsive to our needs.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

Glynda C. Carr is co-founder of Higher Heights, a nonprofit focused on harnessing black women’s political power and leadership potential, and co-author of the recent report  “The Status of Black Women in American Politics” (pdf). Follow her on Twitter. Maya L. Harris is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School and author of the recent report “Women of Color: A Growing Force in the American Electorate.” Follow her on Twitter.