Our Elected Officials Should Reflect and Represent Us—so Why Don’t They?

State legislative leaders of today are dynamic and diverse—we just need more of them to make state legislatures more inclusive.

Photo of Texas state Senator Bryan Hughes with members of the State Affairs committee
Running for office in Texas requires navigating structural mazes that can inhibit anyone not rich enough to overcome them. It’s no wonder the legislature, pictured here, is out of touch. Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images

The outrageous new Texas law that turns anyone with an axe to grind into an anti-abortion vigilante is almost beyond belief. Prior to this, conventional wisdom posited that while we might see Roe v. Wade gutted by a Trump-shaped Supreme Court, we wouldn’t end up here: watching as the Court turned its back on 50 years of precedent, rendering Roe effectively meaningless in Texas by allowing a law to go into effect that not only bans abortions after six weeks, but also empowers vigilante bounty hunters and incentivizes them to surveil and harass people for a $10,000 prize.

Creative attacks on our rights require creative counterattacks. Ideas like declaring Texas abortion providers as “privacy protectors” subject to federal protection are critical to mobilize people to political action and take narrative control; state prosecutors and attorneys general declaring they won’t enforce abortion bans demonstrate that public officials at every level of government have a role to play in protecting abortion rights.

But they’re also short-term solutions. The truth is, the very nature of our state legislatures must be reconsidered and modernized to meet the needs of this moment.

It’s a fundamental American value to believe that our elected officials should reflect and represent us, the people. In most states, however, they don’t even come close. Today, women make up only 31 percent of state legislative seats; just 4.82 percent of state legislators are Black women. More than 71 percent of the 7,383 state legislative seats in the United States are held by white people.

While there is limited information about the average state legislator’s level of personal wealth, we can take Florida as one example: In Florida, the average net worth of state senators in 2019 was $5.9 million—about nine times the average net worth of a Florida resident. Additional research indicates that “wealth disparities appear even at the earliest stages of the candidate pipeline to higher office”—in other words, the “wealth gap” between elected officials and the people they represent starts early.

The very nature of our state legislatures seems designed to incentivize already-privileged people to hold state elected office: In many states, legislators are part-time, paid very little if at all (new research shows that people “dramatically overestimate” the salaries of state legislators), and required to drop everything else for several months each year to be fully available for their legislative sessions. Some women legislators have tried to time their pregnancies so they can give birth during summer recess because being a state legislator and a mother is in such tension. Can we ever truly achieve justice-oriented state policies, on abortion rights or anything, if our decision-makers are older, whiter, richer, and more male than the people they represent?

What happens in Texas does not, as we know, stay in Texas. The states hostile to abortion rights have quite an overlap with states that have part-time or hybrid and low-paid legislators.

The truth is that state legislatures are vestiges of the colonial origins of the United States, and therefore exclusion and privilege are baked into their very existence. Though their evolution over these past few centuries has led to some improvements in terms of representation, we still have a long way to go before these bodies of power are truly welcoming to a more representative set of people. Organizing and investing in building power locally—while critical and long overdue—cannot alone compensate for the structural realities of many state legislative bodies and the ways those structures lead to a gap between the needs and desires of constituents and the policy priorities of legislators.

There was no groundswell of demand in Texas for legislators to create abortion bounty hunters rather than expand Medicaid, and a growing percentage of Texas voters actually think abortion laws should be less strict, not more. But Texas legislators make $7,200 per year and are 64 percent white, 76 percent male, and 44 percent Baby Boomer or older. Running for office in Texas requires navigating structural mazes that can inhibit anyone not rich enough to overcome them. It’s no wonder the legislature is out of touch.

What happens in Texas does not, as we know, stay in Texas. The states hostile to abortion rights have quite an overlap with states that have part-time or hybrid and low-paid legislators as tracked by the National Conference of State Legislatures; conversely, full-time professionalized state legislatures like California and New York tend to be more supportive of reproductive rights.

Following the Texas abortion ban, states like Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, North Dakota, and South Dakota are all considering copycat legislation. What else do these states have in common? Each is a part-time or hybrid legislature; Arkansas legislators are 89 percent white and 76 percent male, North Dakota’s legislature is 98 percent white and 79 percent male, and the trend continues.

Progressive campaign organizations have done an incredible job in the past several cycles of recruiting and supporting scores of women, younger people, and people of color to run for office at all levels. Consequently, state legislatures are slowly becoming more representative of our communities. And the state legislative leaders of today are dynamic and diverse; they’re putting their bodies on the line to protect our rights, sharing their own abortion stories, leaving their homes for weeks on end, and facing horrific sexist and racist attacks simply for doing their jobs.

But we need more of these fighters, and it’s past time to revisit the options available to fundamentally alter the way states govern in service of becoming more inclusive and more responsive to the needs of the people. With the courts no longer willing to respect precedent, we need to think more broadly and more creatively to protect abortion rights for this and future generations.