Are Gender Quotas a Possibility in the U.S.?

In November 2013, John Marshall, a prominent libertarian in Montana, submitted a proposal to amend the state constitution and require gender quotas in the Montana state legislature. If accepted, the amendment would require an equal number of men and women in the state’s legislative body.

Marshall argues that gender equality needs to be a more prominent part of the political landscape, both because women are the majority of the population, and because they are frequently excluded from electoral seats.

This viewpoint remains fairly radical in the United States, despite women’s under-representation across the country. In the House of Representatives, women hold only 18.5 percent of electoral offices. Meanwhile, in the Senate, women have 20 percent of the seats. The number rises only slightly higher in state legislatures where the number reaches 24.3 percent. A woman has yet to be president in the U.S. and only 5 governors across the country are currently women.

Around the world, nations have begun to employ quotas regularly since 1985. Although prior to that year, only 4 countries used quotas, over 100 nations now use them as part of the electoral process.

Quotas can range in how they are employed to increase a historically excluded or under-represented group in politics. While some quota systems are legally mandated at a certain percentage, others allow party’s to voluntary set their own system of candidate representation.

These systems also differ in what level of the nomination process they target. For example, some quota systems require the pool of potential candidates, or aspirants, to have a percentage of women (the primary process). In Mexico, each party is required to have 40 percent of their candidate lists be women.

Others require that a certain number of women stand in the actual general election, and are actual candidates. In Uruguay, a new law, passed in 2009 and implemented this year, will require that in candidate lists for public office, women are required to be a third of the candidate ballot. When only two seats are available, one candidate must be a woman.

Uruguay lags behind other Latin American systems with only 14 percent of the lower house and 13 percent of the upper house of Congress boasting women officials. Throughout Latin America, almost 25 percent of legislatures are women.

Meanwhile, other systems require that a specific number of elected officials serve in the democratic bodies. In Rwanda, there is a mandatory minimum to have 30 percent women in all decision-making bodies. Rwanda boasts one of the world’s highest representation of female elected officials in the world, with the lower house having 64 percent female representation and the upper house boasting 38 percent.

In light of the world’s success in employing quotas, the U.S. intransigence on the topic remains puzzling. Even though the Equal Rights Amendment debate in the 1970s and 1980s did not include quotas, debates about the possible requirement of legally mandated gender requirements became part of the argument against it.

Furthermore, a recent poll by ABC News-Fusion reveals that only 23 percent of Republicans even agree with the idea that “it would be a good thing if more women were elected to Congress.” (43 percent of Americans agree with the statement more broadly)

Even as groups like Emily’s List and Emerge run grassroots efforts to promote women to run for office in the U.S., women still face substantial barriers such as societal pressure and lack of party enthusiasm.

According to the legal analysis conducted by Anisa Somani, of the 95 countries ranking above the U.S. in gender representation, 68 of them employ some form of a gender quota. As countries around the world continue to implement gender quotas to successful results, Marshall’s proposal in Montana becomes increasingly important and palatable.

If a libertarian can make a states’ rights argument in favor of quotas in Montana, the traditionally progressive idea of quotas may be able to make headway with a coalition of interests at stake in the issue that is uniquely nonpartisan.