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Column: How many votes does it take for a woman to get elected?

The answer is surprisingly few. Niamh Gallagher explains why she’s working to encourage everyday women to run for office.

Niamh Gallagher

THERE’S A MOMENT each time during Women for Election’s Inspire Programme where jaws have dropped and the gasps have been audible.

That’s the moment where the gathered women realise the actual number of votes it takes to get elected. The shock comes because the number in some cases is so low. We can see the women thinking that between friends, family, neighbours, colleagues, former colleagues, and fellow members of the local sports club or Tidy Towns Committee that the number of people they need to support them isn’t really that high.

Yet this is information, the fabled ‘numbers’ that remains such a mystery to those outside the political system. At Inspire, Women for Election’s campaign expert breaks it down for the participants – pointing to the actual number of votes needed to get elected to a town or borough council (which is where most people start their political careers), how to identify that vote, and how unnecessary universal appeal is a multi-seat constituency.

A stark example cites TDs in the current Dáil who got elected on five per cent of the vote – meaning 95 or so out of every hundred in who voted in their constituencies did not vote for these TDs. These are the type of figures that really resonate.

Of course, getting even these votes is the hard part for any candidate. But for women there are particular challenges. International research shows that it is the ‘five C’s’ that hinder women entering politics: confidence, cash, culture, candidate selection and childcare. Women for Election, in our initial Inspire programme, want to encourage women to at least think about entering political life. Using this international research along with our
own, we set about providing women with practical tools and information that might transform their mind set.

‘Women have every chance of getting elected – if they can get onto the ticket’

We decided to focus initially on confidence, campaigns and communication skills. Confidence because we wanted women who were already active, committed and passionate about issues and their communities to see that they had it within themselves to go forward; campaigns because we wanted to demystify the process and show how to read the numbers, identify the voters and build a team; and communications so women could see how to transfer the issues they were passionate about into well-communicated messages.

So far we have run Inspire Programmes in Dublin, Cork and Galway (which brought together women from not only Galway but Mayo, Clare, Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan and Westmeath). On July 7 due to incredible demand we will be back in Dublin again.

Some have asked why we are focusing on women and our answer is clear. In the current Dáil we have the best representation of women ever – yet only 15 per cent of TDs are female. In the last General Election just 86 of the 566 candidates were women – also 15 per cent.

So it seems evident that women have every chance of getting elected if they can get on to the ticket. That is where Women for Election come in. We believe in a balanced participation of women and men in political life. We are the only non-partisan organisation working solely on identifying and supporting women to commit to public life. In the past, parties have commissioned training for women on an ad-hoc basis without significant long-term impact.

‘The cheers are incredible to see’

As an organisation Women for Election feel very strongly about the fact that we are very strictly non-partisan. No ifs, buts or maybes. We make it very clear at the beginning of every programme we run; this is not the place to discuss Government policy, party politics or electoral reform. We have had members of every party and none at our programmes, women who have canvassed for candidates and women who have never even considered joining a political party. We have received and are incredibly grateful for the
support from female politicians of every persuasion, a growing number of whom have spoken at our events about their personal journey providing inspiration to the gathered women.

Women for Election is only part of a solution to a larger problem. There is under-representation in politics among all minority groups in society. Yet just because you cannot fix the whole problem doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt to play your part. It has been really encouraging to see what has happened during Inspire programmes. Women have come together, shared learning and experiences, received valuable training and information and at the end of each day made commitments to themselves and others.

Some commitments have been small steps, like promising to seek out more information, or take a leadership role in whatever community group, sports club or association they are already a member of. Other commitments have been more profound. At the end of every Inspire we have had a small number of women announce that their mind is made up – they are going to do what it takes to run for election.

The cheers they get from every woman in the room - hopefully some of whom will be running against them – are incredible to see.

This is only the start of the political journey for these women and we hope they will be joined by many more. Women for Election will be there to support them all.

Niamh Gallagher is the co-founder of Women for Election. Anyone interested in finding out more about the INSPIRE Programme to be held in Dublin on July 7 can email inspire@womenforelection.ie.  Further information about Women for Election is available at womenforelection.ie.

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