The midterm election results produced some good, bad and truly ugly news for women and families. For better or for worse, women voters (and the women who stayed home) were instrumental in all three outcomes.
In good news, voters passed state ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage -- and by healthy majorities, too. One might even say it was a wave election of sorts for raising the minimum wage, since it won wherever it was put on the ballot. Workers in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota will receive a much-needed raise, and voters in Illinois told us they'd like a wage hike, too, in a nonbinding statewide advisory question.
Voters also rejected extreme personhood amendments that would have curbed access to birth control as well as abortion. Women in Colorado and North Dakota will continue making the best health care decisions for themselves and their families following the solid defeats of these anti-choice amendments. Oregon voters passed an Equal Rights for Women amendment with very little controversy (Why oh why can't we do that nationwide?). And the state of Massachusetts and three municipalities passed paid sick days legislation -- a paid sick pays mini-wave -- bringing these commonsense measures to a total of three states and 16 cities.
Considering there were so many important initiatives on the ballot -- not to mention the balance of power in the Senate -- it was seriously disappointing that a record number of voters chose not to show up at all, though I recognize there's a message in there, too.
And that's the bad news: Those who came to the polls this year didn't look anything like the U.S. population overall. In fact, it would be fair to say that this election's voters were overwhelmingly white, older, male and wealthy. On the up side, this painfully homogeneous group of voters made great choices on ballot initiatives, but then they happily contradicted themselves by electing candidates who actively opposed those same issues.
Young people and people of color, Latinos in particular, were missing in action, and too many women stayed home as well. Hispanics' share of voters this year remained stagnant from four years ago, despite growth in their share of eligible voters. The electorate overall this year was three-fourths white, according to exit polls. We know that voter ID laws caused problems in some states and were more likely to adversely affect young people and minorities, but that wasn't the only factor at play in this year's poor turnout.
The gender gap in elections has long been a factor, and this year Democrats again won female voters--Republicans just won male voters by a larger margin. In fact, in Colorado, women voters strongly favored Sen. Mark Udall, with exit polls showing a 12-point gender gap, but that fact didn't lead him to victory because young women didn't turn out in big enough numbers.
Women historically vote in higher numbers and at higher rates than men, including midterm elections. But the gap narrows tremendously during midterm elections, despite 81.7 million women being registered to vote in 2012 compared to 71.4 million men. We can make this disparity work in our favor, but not if we take it for granted.
Perhaps most frustrating is this statistic: Americans younger than 30 and those older than 65 make up an equal percentage of the electorate (each about one-fifth), yet those older than 65 were more than two times as likely to vote in 2014. The data also show that young people are more progressive. No wonder, then, that Republicans virtually ran the table in the Senate and won most gubernatorial races.
Speaking of the Senate, that's where things get ugly. Some of the senators-elect support personhood measures like those defeated in Colorado and North Dakota. And many of them don't support raising the minimum wage -- although voters in their states clearly do. Surveys of Senate battleground states showed strong support for tougher equal pay laws, but voters chose candidates who want anything but.
These contradictions seem painfully obvious, so what's going on? It's simple: The general electorate is discontented with partisan politics and mind-numbing gridlock and, by voting in new candidates and a different party, is pleading for sanity and function. But voters also aren't giving Congress any incentive to compromise. Control of Congress has switched so frequently in recent years that there's little time for actual legislating. In fact, this constant pendulum-swinging pretty much ensures politicians won't play Let's Make a Deal -- why bother when your party stands a good chance to take control in a year or two?
In all likelihood, even less will be accomplished in the next two years while both parties position themselves for 2016 and presidential wannabes grandstand for their base. Meanwhile, the American voter will become more and more disillusioned with the entire process. We know we've got major issues facing the nation, yet we continually kick the can down the road because we can't get our act together beyond prepping for the next election. There is something dreadfully wrong with this picture.
President Barack Obama and the newly-minted GOP leadership duo of Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are making appropriate noises about collaboration and compromise. We've heard this all before. Still, I (naively perhaps) want to believe there's some sincerity in their mutual song of Kumbaya. McConnell and Boehner are both dyed-in-the-wool institutionalists, and they want to legislate -- they are, in fact, desperate to show that the GOP can govern. But the reality is that, despite the power these three men hold, they have less control than you might think. The president is entering his self-described "fourth quarter" and stiff-arming lame duck status for all he's worth, while McConnell and Boehner face a fired-up Tea Party faction, pushing for ideological purity with little respect for their party's leadership. This all makes for an unpredictable alchemy of personalities, politics and policy that could prove either combustible or productive. Only time will tell, and voters and non-voters alike will be watching.