Swing State Women Speak Out on Election Eve

By Linda Basch, PhD

With the election only a day away, we asked members of our network based in states like Ohio, Michigan, and Idaho to weigh in on the key issues facing women in their region as they get ready to vote. We asked them to tell us the most critical policy issues currently at stake. And we asked them to share any special fears about voting fraud, what's being done to address it, and whether there are initiatives underway which others might support.

Our respondents are Julie Graber, Senior Associate for Strategic Planning in the Colleges of the Arts and Sciences at The Ohio State University, where she is responsible for leading the start-up work for The Institute on Women, Gender, and Public Policy; Lisa McClain, Director of Gender Studies at Boise State University in Boise, Idaho; and Susan W. Kaufmann, Associate Director for Advocacy at the University of Michigan Center for the Education of Women. Here's what they've told us, below!

Linda Basch: What are the key issues facing women in your state as they get ready to hit the polls?

Julie Graber: Like everyone across the country, women in Ohio face critical issues related to the economy - not just current economic conditions, but also long-term issues that have been barriers to economic success.

Ohio ranks in the bottom 12 states for the percentage of women age 25 and older with four or more years of college (22%), which has a significant impact on a woman's earning ability. Women in Ohio also have specific health issues that need to be addressed, such as a high rate of death from breast cancer, and these issues are impacted at the policy level when it comes to research and funding.

Ohio women also need to pay attention to the number of women serving in our state legislature, which has been on a decline since the mid-1990s and now stands at 17%. Women may not agree on all of the issues, but research has demonstrated the an increase in the number of women serving in a legislative body increases the amount of attention paid to issues related to the health, education and the environment. Women need to keep in mind the types of decisions that are made at the state level - how federal programs are implemented and how federal dollars are spent is often controlled by state legislative and executive officials, for example. While much of the focus has been on the presidential campaign this year, the outcomes of our state-level elections will have a significant impact on women as well.

Lisa McClain: I love Idaho, but, to be blunt, women want more economic opportunities. In this religiously conservative state, the former norm was for women to work in the home after beginning families. With economic realities being what they are, however, greater numbers of these women--and Idaho women of all ages and situations--have to find employment outside the home. And they are not happy with their small menu of options.

Even before the economic downturn in October, Idaho ranked 48th out of the 50 states in terms of women's economic status, as measured collectively by earnings, pay equity, labor force participation, business ownership and types of jobs held. One woman in eight lives in poverty in Idaho. Women in Idaho make up a disproportionate percentage of minimum wage workers, and the gender pay gap is wider here, with women earning only 72 cents to a man's dollar.

Linked to many women's ability to work is availability of quality, affordable childcare. Idaho families tend to be larger than the national average. Yet the Idaho legislature continues to refuse to pass basic safety standards for childcare providers on the grounds that it would harm families by encouraging mothers who should be staying home with small children to work outside the home. Yet many women MUST work outside the home to support their families. If women are to raise their economic status in these hard times, we need to give women the tools.

Idahoan women also want access to affordable healthcare for all citizens, particularly their children. And they are concerned about the prevalence of domestic violence, rape, stalking, and human trafficking and worry over proposed funding cuts for services to aid victims and survivors. There are so many more issues but these are the top three.

Susan Kaufmann: The Michigan economy, the worst in the nation, is taking a terrible toll on women and families. Since June 2000, Michigan has lost over half a million jobs. Our unemployment rate is 8.7%, the second highest in the nation, and is predicted to rise 1.5% in 2009.

Women are particularly hard-hit, as Michigan women working full-time, year-round earn only 71 cents for every dollar earned by a similarly employed man, one of the highest levels of wage inequity in the country. Poverty rose rapidly in Michigan between 2001 and 2007.

Michigan is also one of the top five states for home foreclosures and Detroit the top city in the nation. The impact is felt throughout the state but has been particularly brutal in urban cores, disproportionately affecting female-headed households.

Linda Basch: What are the most critical policy issues currently at stake in your region?

Julie Graber: Ohio has often been a bellwether state, at least for the Midwest region of the U.S. We've been hit hard by the economic declines experienced by the rest of the country, with some of the highest levels of unemployment in 16 years. These issues topped the list of concerns among Ohioans when asked to identify "the most important issue" in deciding their vote for president in a poll conducted in September 2008 by the Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati. The other top issues were the war in Iraq, energy issues and health care.

There's also tremendous geographical diversity in the state that impacts the issues of most concern. Northern Ohio has been part of the rust-belt, southeastern Ohio is part of Appalachia, and we have three major cities (Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati) that tend to differ significantly from the rural portions of the state in areas such as education level, household income, level of poverty and unemployment.

Lisa McClain: In addition to the need for increased economic opportunities for Idahoan women, all Idahoans express fears about the increasing number of small business closures. Major state employers such as Micron have laid off large percentages of their workforces, and unemployment continues to rise. Employee health benefits are being reduced and many families with children do not have adequate insurance coverage.

Idahoans fiercely protect their natural habitats--the mountains, rivers and high desert plains where Idahoans live and recreate and which generate substantial economic revenues. Idahoans support renewable energy sources, particularly wind, solar and geothermal options, over the irresponsible, short-sighted "drill, drill, drill". Air quality, auto emissions, water conservation, and habitat stewardship all top lists of environmental policy concerns.

As a predominantly rural "frontier" state, quality roads and public transportation systems are critical to Idahoans, but not roads to anywhere and not irrational public transportation options that aren't available where and when users most need them.

Finally, Idaho women and men alike show increasing interest in improving educational opportunities for our children. No Child Left Behind does not work in our state, teacher pay rates are so low we often lose the teachers we train to neighboring states and lack of early childhood education programs means some children enter school poorly positioned to succeed.

All these policy concerns require sustained, long-term policies, not quick fixes for the short term. But historically, Idahoans are a patient people.

Susan Kaufmann: Preventing foreclosures and keeping families in their homes whenever possible is critical to ending the devastation being experienced by families and communities and to shore up plummeting home prices.

Equal pay legislation, including the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the Paycheck Fairness Act, is essential to ending sex discrimination in pay.

National paid sick leave policy would enable all workers to care for themselves and their families without losing income or jeopardizing their jobs. Access to affordable health insurance is ever more critical as workers lose employer-provided benefits.

Both Michigan and the U.S. must produce more college graduates in order to remain economically competitive. After years of continual cuts in state funding, Michigan universities need more state support, and students need more state and federal need-based financial aid, as detailed in "Access to Higher Education: Barriers and Benefits."

Currently, only one of every seven U.S. children who are eligible for a state childcare subsidy actually receives one, and subsidy payments are too low to secure good quality care. Adequate childcare assistance supports low-income mothers in meeting state work requirements, remaining employed and providing safe and nurturing care for their children.

Changing federal welfare law to permit recipients to meet work requirements by earning a bachelor's degree would provide permanent economic stability for families and increase children's educational attainment.

Just to name a few!

Linda Basch: Are there any special fears about voting fraud in your state and if so, what is being done to address this? Are there any initiatives underway that others in our national network might support?

Julie Graber: We've had challenges related to voting in our state in the past; in the last presidential election, the distribution of polling machines was a huge issue and resulted in people waiting in line for as many as eight to ten hours to vote.

There have also been issues related to the use of electronic voting machines and early voting. We did ease the process since the last election by loosening the requirements for voting absentee; voters now do not have to provide a specific reason for requesting an absentee ballot.

And our Secretary of State, Jennifer Brunner, has focused a significant portion of her resources in the two years since taking office on strengthening the state's ability to manage an election effectively.

Obviously, the real test will be on Tuesday, but there are reasons to be hopeful that we won't repeat the missteps of the past.

Lisa McClain: None that I'm aware of. Well, that's something to be thankful for! I'll remember to count my blessings (we Idahoans do that a lot) as I go to vote.

Susan Kaufmann: There have been some concerns in Michigan, but hopefully they have been resolved. In one case, the Advancement Project, the American Civil Liberties Union and private attorneys successfully sued the Michigan Secretary of State in U.S. District Court. They have stopped the state from nullifying new voter registrations if mailed voter identification cards are returned as undeliverable.

In response to an alleged threat by a county Republican Party official to challenge the voting rights of individuals on home foreclosure lists, the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee filed a federal lawsuit against the Michigan Republican Party and the Republican National Committee. The Republican and Democratic National Committees settled the lawsuit by agreeing that neither party would engage in such a practice.

In a third case, a U.S. District judge refused to overturn a state law prohibiting voters from wearing campaign paraphernalia, including buttons and T-shirts, within 100 feet of a polling place. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees had filed the lawsuit.

This is an election with extraordinarily high stakes for women and families. Many people will be working to ensure a fair and legal voting process.

Linda Basch: We all await with eager anticipation. Thank you, Julie, Lisa, and Susan.