Connecting state and local government leaders
A new study finds that women are more likely to hold county clerk positions, possibly because the job’s responsibilities conform to traditional gender roles for women in the workplace.
Though women racked up electoral gains in 2018, they are still underrepresented in politics at all levels. As of 2019, at the state level there are only nine female governors and 15 lieutenant governors, and less than 30% of legislative seats are held by women. In other political jobs, women make up 24% of Congress and hold 20% of mayoral positions in large cities.
But in one position, women are disproportionately overrepresented, and startling so: across the country, there is no state where fewer than 50% of county clerk positions are held by women. In some places, women have a near monopoly, such as Arkansas, where in 2016, 91% of county clerks were women.
A new study, published in State and Local Government Review by Brianne Heidbreder and Ethan Bernick of Kansas State University, explores the reasons why women might be so overrepresented in this one particular job. Heibreder said she was originally drawn to the topic because county governments are often overlooked in academic research. “A lot of people think of state government in an abstract way, and they don’t investigate the day-to-day operations of politics. States rely on their counties to implement policies and serve their constituents,” she said. “So it’s important to look at the people who hold offices in that level of government.”
The authors’ analysis included 920 counties in 12 states from a diversity of regions, examining female representation in clerk positions elected from 2012 to 2014. Heidbreder said she knew the percentage of clerks who were women nationwide would be quite high from anecdotal information, but was shocked to see how high and how typical these percentages were no matter the state or the region.
Twenty-six states elect their county clerks, and responsibilities vary from county to county. Typically, clerks are in charge of administrative tasks, like keeping records, issuing licenses, running payroll, and administering elections. “These process-oriented tasks used to be referred to as secretarial work,” said Heidbreder. “So part of the reason women are overrepresented could be due to the fact that the position conforms to traditional gender roles.”
Heidbreder also noted that the county clerk position is often a constrained one that isn’t seen as very powerful, which might make it less attractive to men who hope to use a lower office as a springboard to a more authoritative one. But that perception has begun to change in recent years as clerks have made national news for controversial decisions, such as denying marriage licenses to LGBTQ couples and moving polling places to locations with fewer transportation options.
County clerks’ influence over elections in particular make them more important than many people realize, Heidbreder said. County clerks often have power over polling locations, updates to voting equipment, and poll worker training, all factors that can significantly influence voter turnout. “People tie elections to state government in a general way,” Heidbreder said. “But county clerks are the front-line bureaucrats making decisions and implementing policies. A lot of their work is done in a low-visibility way, but when they use their power, they can have a huge impact.”
The study found three factors that make men more likely to serve in the county clerk role: larger populations, higher support in the area for Obama in the 2012 election, and a larger number of women in other county offices. These factors mean the county may be more liberal, so men will take on traditional women’s roles while women have the option to run for other offices. Larger counties also mean that the clerk’s role is more powerful, so men may seek it as a chance to establish themselves before seeking statewide office.
But Karen Yarbrough, elected in 2018 to the clerk position in Cook County, Illinois, bucks all these trends. Cook County, which includes Chicago, has a population of over five million, where 74% of people voted for Obama in 2012, and five of the eight elected county positions are held by women. Yarbrough, both the first woman and the first African American to hold her office, said she was motivated to run because of a 2016 ballot initiative that consolidated the county clerk’s office with the county recorder’s office, where she formerly held office. “I ran because I had started a number of initiatives at the Recorder’s Office that I didn’t want to go away,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to make sure people know about what government does for them, and the best way to do that is to bring local government to the people.”
Yarbrough said her personal experience in politics, which started in the state legislature, confirmed a theory of Heidbreder’s—women in elected office tend to prioritize citizen outreach more than men. “I’ve always seen connecting government to community as a priority,” she said. “Many women I know in county government or otherwise tend to have very strong outreach plans with town halls, and the like.”
Yarbrough also said her time serving in the state legislature showed her how collaborative women in elected office are. “When I was in Springfield,” she said, referencing the state capital, “one of the most engaged caucuses was the women’s caucus. When we came together, and we went to talk to the governor about issues we cared about, we were heard, and in nine out of ten cases, we got our issues addressed. We governed more holistically.”
Though some in her position might angle for a statewide office after serving as county clerk, Yarbrough said she’s happy where she is. “There’s plenty to do here as we streamline government and make it work better for the people,” she said. As her office oversees the third-largest election district in the U.S., some might argue that she already occupies one of the most influential positions in the state.
But in other counties, Heidbreder said it’s important to look at how women are using the position of city clerk to expand the representation of women in other offices as well. The study notes that “the numerical overrepresentation of women in the position of county clerk is not necessarily indicative of real progress in women’s representation in positions of power.”
Heidbreder said that while having more women in office is certainly a good thing, she thinks broader representation will come when women start to use the job as a launching pad to state office. “That might change the gendered way in which people view political leaders,” she said.
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.