Seventy percent of Hawaii’s elected officials are men. Women have been shortchanged in our government, and many issues important to women I know hardly get the attention they deserve. But this is not about why women should be more equally included in Hawaii’s critical decision-making — this is about how to get them there.

We are fortunate to have strong women representing us in Congress, but local politics is overwhelmingly male-dominated. Only 21 percent of elected county officials are women. Thirty-three percent of the State House is female, but women disproportionately hold just two of 10 Democratic leadership positions and chair only four of 20 House committees.

Many are already working to engage more women to vote and participate, which is positive. (Hawaii Women and Politics — A Sore Subject, August 1) However, if the real goal is more equal representation in government, then the solution goes far beyond reaching out to engage women — more women must step forward to run for office.

With limited resources, reaching out to engage anyone in the political process is extremely difficult. Despite our best efforts, political participation has continued to decline among both sexes, and a shrinking focus on civic education, social studies and history in our schools will soon exacerbate the problem.

People often have more pressing concerns than getting involved. While a 2010 survey sponsored by the Patsy T. Mink Political Action Committee found that 36 percent of Hawaii’s single mothers are not registered to vote, state data shows that 67 percent of single parents cannot afford basic food, healthcare, and housing without government assistance. In fact, 72 percent of all women surveyed showed more concern with daily issues than involvement with politics.

Can we really expect to overcome people’s focus on daily survival in these tough times? Even if we could, will engaging more women actually lead to electing more women?

Probably not.

Women are already more politically engaged than men, and more women vote than men in every election. Women under 35 are the most active, and 7 percent more show up to the polls than their male counterparts.

Engaging more women will lead to electing more women only if women predominantly vote for female candidates. While the Patsy T. Mink PAC survey found that 63 percent of women say they would vote for a female candidate over a male candidate — in reality this is not so clear.

In 2010, six men and one woman ran for Lieutenant Governor in Hawaii’s Democratic Primary Election. The only female candidate finished fifth with just 8 percent of the vote, and did little better when controlling for the amount of money each candidate spent. If gender mattered at all, it took a back seat to other things.

Other elections suggest the same conclusion. Of the 95 races for the state legislature in the last two General Elections, four had male vs. female opponents running for open seats with no incumbent. These seats were won by two women and two men, but political party – not gender – was the deciding factor for voters. In these districts the candidate matching the predominant political demographic easily won by large margins. Democrats won Democratic strongholds and a Republican won a Republican stronghold.

In the 31 other legislative races with male-female matchups, the incumbent won every time, regardless of gender. In fact, of all 95 legislative races, only five incumbents lost. Incumbency and basic demographics trump nearly every other factor that determines election outcomes except one — which candidates choose to run in the first place.

Of the 191 candidates who chose to run in these 95 legislative races, 70 percent were men. Most importantly, 22 men, but just four women, ran for the 13 key seats with no incumbent where newcomers have a real chance of winning.

It is not that women have trouble winning elections – it is that there are not enough women running to begin with.

Social, cultural and economic barriers still make it hard for some women to consider running for public office, but women who can run must step forward – it will take their help as elected leaders to ultimately break these barriers down.

Women like Patsy Mink demonstrate that Hawaii can benefit tremendously from female leadership in public office. If we are going to live up to the diversity and equality on which Hawaii prides itself, then women must be more equally included in the critical decisions that shape the future of our state. Engaging more women to vote is not enough — women must run for office in greater numbers.

So, if you are a woman and you care about Hawaii – then why not you?


About the author: Representative Chris Lee has served Kailua and Waimanalo in the State Legislature since 2008. He is Vice-Chair of the Committee on Hawaiian Affairs and serves on the Committees on Finance, Health, Human Services and Culture and the Arts. He holds a BS in Political Science from Oregon State University, and is a graduate of Iolani School.