Race and gender are key factors in determining the distribution of power in government, according to the study presented this week by a team of researchers including UCSB professor of Political Science Pei-te Lien. The team created a database of over 10,000 elected officials of color at federal, state, and local levels. Using this database, they conducted phone surveys with 1,354 African-American, Asian-American, Latino, and American Indian officials on various policy topics ranging from the war in Iraq to education to abortion in an effort to gain a more focused understanding of our elected leadership. In addition to key issues, the group also analyzed personal background and the roles of those polled to create an unprecedented study of multiculturalism and gender in U.S. politics.
The researchers expect that the findings of this survey will prove useful in studying how diversity in government fails to reflect diversity in the general population and forecasting the impact that diversity has on our nation. While the data shows that the number of nonwhite elected officials has been on the rise, they are still greatly outnumbered with 14 percent of Congress being nonwhite and 3 percent being women of color. However, according to Prof. Lien, “Women of color are being elected at a slightly higher rate than men of color.” In addition to being on average better educated than their male counterparts Lien says that evidence suggests “women of color may be perceived as less threatening [to the mainstream voters] and can better serve as a bridge between the mainstream and the minority communities.”
The study also measured the success of the Voting Rights Act, which was enacted in 1965 to provide protect against voter discrimination. According to the researchers the majority of nonwhite elected officials are from jurisdictions covered by the Voting Rights Act. Most crucial especially for Latino candidates, researchers said, were provisions for ballots in languages other than English in jurisdictions with large non-English speaking populations. The study found that in comparison to federal elections, state and local elections have less Voting Rights Act coverage and this negatively effects the representation of Latino and Asian American men and women in office at the state and local levels. When asked about what effects this report will have on government, Lien said the study shows that “race continues to be highly relevant in 21st century America and that racial consciousness and racial concerns are a unifying factor among the elected officials of color.”