State legislative elections were held in New Jersey – including both House and Senate – and Virginia – House alone – on November 2, 2021. This off-year election gives us a chance to identify gender trends before the bulk of states hold state and federal elections in 2022.
1. Were more women on the ballot in 2021?
The charts below show recent trends in the number of women state legislative nominees in each state by chamber and party. What they reveal is that the number of women who made it through their party primaries was higher in 2021 than in the previous elections in both New Jersey and Virginia House contests, while the number of New Jersey Senate nominees was slightly lower than in the last election in 2017. Gains in women’s nominations across both House chambers were more modest than the past two election cycles. Perhaps most notably, while the number of women nominees for the Virginia House of Delegates increased by 68% from 2015 to 2017, the increase from 2017 to 2019 was just 19% and the increase from 2019 to 2021 was 16%.
2. Did women represent a greater share of the candidate pool in 2021?
The table below tells a mixed story; women were a larger proportion of New Jersey Assembly nominees this year than in the two previous cycles, but women were a smaller proportion of nominees for New Jersey Senate in 2021 than they were in 2017, when that chamber’s seats were last contested. Women made up nearly the same proportion of Virginia House of Delegates nominees in 2021 as they did in 2019.
Gains in raw numbers of women nominees are less notable if they are matched by increases among men. In order to evaluate the representativeness (at least vis-à-vis gender) of the candidate pools in state legislative contests, we must consider women nominees’ share of all major-party lines on this year’s general election ballots.
3. What gains – if any – did women make in state legislative representation in 2021?
Women made gains in New Jersey and Virginia House elections, but the number of women in the New Jersey Senate will decline by one between 2021 and 2022.
The gains for women in the New Jersey Assembly (+19%) are greater than those gains made as a result of both the 2017 (+4%) and 2019 (-3.7%) elections, though they remain modest. The Assembly will see a net gain of five women between 2021 and 2022. Women saw a net gain of one seat in the New Jersey Assembly from 2017 to 2018 and a net loss of one seat from 2019 to 2020.
In the Virginia House of Delegates, women’s gains as a result of the 2021 election (+12.9%) are much more modest than was the jump in women’s representation as a result of election 2017 (+64.7%). Women’s representation in the Virginia House will increase by a net of four seats from 2021 to 2021. In contrast, women’s House representation went up by 11 as a result of the 2017 election. The 2019 election yielded a net gain of three women delegates in the Virginia House.
4. What were the partisan trends for candidacy and success among women?
Partisan trends in state legislative nominations the past few election cycles have been most stable in New Jersey’s Assembly, where Democratic and Republican women have made modest increases in nominations. Partisan differences have also been minimal in New Jersey Senate nominations between 2013, 2017, and 2021, with the largest jumps in both parties in election 2017. In Virginia, however, trends for Democratic and Republican women’s nominations have differed during this time. While both Democratic and Republican women’s nominations increased significantly between 2015 and 2017 cycles, Democratic women’s nominations have stayed relatively level (+11% in 2019, +2% in 2021) while Republican women’s nominations have increased more consistently (+55.6% in 2019, +64.3% in 2021). Importantly, Democratic women were still more than two-thirds of all women nominees for the Virginia House in 2021, demonstrating that Republican gains in raw numbers are still relatively small.
Democratic women also made up a larger share of all of their party’s nominees than did Republican women across these states and chambers in recent election years. Most notably, women were more than 50% of Democratic nominees for the New Jersey Assembly in 2021, as well as the Virginia House of Delegates in both 2019 and 2021.
The historic gains that Democratic women made across levels of office in the 2018 election were foreshadowed by the Democratic women’s success in Virginia’s 2017 legislative elections. That year, Democratic women accounted for all but one net gain in the number of women delegates. Put differently, Democratic women’s representation in the Virginia House increased by 76.9% between 2017 and 2018, while Republican women’s representation increased by 25%. Party trends for women shifted in Virginia’s 2019 elections; with overall gains for women minimal as a result of the 2019 election, the raw and percentage gains for both Democratic and Republican women were similar. Election 2021 moved the needle further for Republican women, whose representation will increase by five (+83.3%) in the Virginia House of Delegates. The number of Democratic women delegates will decline by one (-4%) between 2021 and 2022.
New Jersey’s General Assembly election results in 2017, 2019, and 2021 show a similar, though less dramatic, turn of the partisan tide for women. While the net gain for women in New Jersey’s Assembly between 2017 and 2018 was only one, Democratic women gained a net four seats (+22.2%) while Republican women’s net loss was three seats (-42.9%). Republican women’s representation stayed level as a result of the 2019 election with a net decline of one (-4.8%) for Democratic women. Republican women will gain a net of four (+57.1%) seats as a result of election 2021 while Democratic women will gain a net of one (+5.3%).
Partisan trends for women also reversed in New Jersey Senate elections between the 2017 and 2021 cycles. While Democratic women gained a net of two (+25%) Senate seats as a result of the 2017 election, Republican women lost all of their Senate representation that year (a net loss of four seats). As a result of the 2021 election, Republican women’s Senate representation will increase by one (+50%) and Democratic women’s Senate representation will decrease by two (-22.2%).
5. What do results mean for the diversity among women state legislators?
In a state where more than 10% of the population identifies as Asian American, New Jersey elected its first Asian American women – Democrats Ellen Park, Shama Haider, and Sadaf Jaffer – to the state legislature in election 2021. All three women will serve in the New Jersey Assembly in 2022. New Jersey will also continue to have one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cohorts of women legislators in 2022. Of the 41 (27D, 14R) women who will serve in the legislature, 11 (11D) identify as Black, 8 (8D) identify as Latina, and 3 (2D) identify as Asian American.
Of the 46 (31D, 15R) who will serve in the Virginia legislature in 2022, 11 (11D) identify as Black, 2 (2D) identify as Latina (including one woman who identifies as both Latina and Asian American), and 4 (4D) women identify as Asian American (including one woman who identifies as both Latina and Asian American).
These numbers do not represent significant changes between 2020 and 2021, apart from New Jersey’s history-making election of Asian American women, but they do demonstrate the persistent dearth of racial and ethnic diversity among Republican women officeholders.
6. How far are we from reaching gender parity in these state legislatures?
Today, women hold 31.1% of all state legislative seats nationwide. Women’s state legislative representation currently ranges from 13.4% (West Virginia) to 58.7% (Nevada). As a result of the 2021 elections, women will hold 34.2% of state legislative seats in New Jersey and 32.9% of state legislative seats in Virginia. Though these represent slight increases from 2021, gender parity will remain elusive in these state legislatures.
While women will have to wait for chamber-wide parity in New Jersey and Virginia, women will reach parity with men among Virginia House Democrats in 2021. In contrast, women will hold 21.2% of seats in the Republican House majority. In New Jersey’s Assembly, women will hold 43.5% of Democratic and 32.4% of Republican seats. In New Jersey’s Senate, women will hold 29.2% of Democratic and 18.8% of Republican seats.